Your Brain on Opioids, Part 2: Walking on the Wild Side With Neuropathways

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Opioids change the brain, but the good news? Your brain can heal.

Now that we’ve taken a look at how opioids affect the brain in the long run, let’s focus a bit on the good news–we have the ability to help our brains heal and to develop new healthy, habits. It’s time to talk neuroplasticity.

While we might associate the word “plastic” with hardness and durability, in the scientific sense it really means that something has the ability to flex and change. So when scientists talk about neuroplasticity, they’re talking about how much our brain remains changeable. It’s about the flexibility we have to develop new skills, acquire new knowledge, and create new habits. Neuroplasticity is how we learn to speak a new language or play a new instrument–and it’s also what recovery from opioids depends on.

“Neuroplasticity is how we learn to speak a new language or play a new instrument–and it’s also what recovery from opioids depends on. ”

It all comes down to neuropathways, or neural pathways. These are actual trails created in our brain over time by repetition and habit. When we roll out of bed and sleepwalk through our morning routine almost automatically, that’s thanks to the neuropathways we’ve created by doing the same thing every morning.

A common analogy is to think of neuropathways as actual walking paths or hiking trails. It’s easy to imagine how walking the same path over and over becomes so familiar that you can do it with hardly any conscious thought. When we abuse opioids over a period of time, through sustained use, we create a well-worn pathway in our brain so that it becomes almost an unconscious habit to use. Your brain knows this route. It knows the twists and turns. It’s easy to follow.

When we choose recovery, and we choose to do something other than using drugs, we are actually attempting to change our brain structure. Recovery requires us to create new neuropathways in our brain, but the cool thing is we can do it. Just as we changed our brain through the habit of addiction, we can help heal it through sustained and repeated healthy recovery habits. Which, frankly, is about as rad as it gets.

“Recovery requires us to create new neuropathways in our brain, but the cool thing is we can do it.”

Waking up each day and deciding not to use is a brand new way of doing things for your brain. To go back to the walking path analogy, you’re forging a brand new trail in the wilderness. The ground is rocky and uncertain, there are discouraging obstacles in the way, and everything is unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

In short, it’s hard. We’re rewiring our brains and it’s tough work. (Especially when our brains keep reminding us how much easier it would be just to fall back on that old neuropathway of addiction.) It takes time and practice to really form that new path, to make it clearer, more familiar, and less uncomfortable to navigate.

But if we stick with it–especially if we can just get through those first difficult days when our brain is frustrated and confused–it gets easier over time because those recovery neuropathways get stronger and deeper every time we choose not to use.

So how do we do it? How do we start to change our brains? Next time, we’ll take a look at some specific tips and tools that can help us heal our brains and create those neuropathways that can carry us away from opioid addiction and into a new, healthy way of living.

Ready to get building new neuropathways? Check out the rest of this series:

Julia Smillie is a national award-winning freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in lit magazines, consumer and trade publications nationwide. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and is currently trying to wrangle her way through the maddening stages of finishing her first novel. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan and has been sober since 1996.

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