Your Brain on Opioids (Part 2)
Opioids alter the brain, but there is some positive news. Your brain has the ability to recover.
Let's focus a bit on the positive news now that we've looked at how opioids damage the brain in the long run–we have the capacity to help our brains repair and create new healthy habits. It's time to bring up the subject of neuroplasticity.
While we often equate the word "plastic" with hardness and durability, it actually refers to something's ability to bend and alter in a scientific sense. When scientists talk about neuroplasticity, they're referring to how malleable our brain is. It's about having the freedom to learn new skills, gain new knowledge, and form new habits. Neuroplasticity is how we learn new languages and instruments, and it's also how we recover from opiate addiction.
Neuropathways, or neurological pathways, are at the heart of everything. These are true trails in our brain that develop over time as a result of repetition and habit. The neuropathways we've formed by doing the same thing every morning help us roll out of bed and sleepwalk through our morning routine almost unconsciously.
Neuropathways are often compared to genuine walking paths or hiking trails. It's simple to see how walking the same path repeatedly becomes so automatic that you don't even notice you're doing it. When we abuse opioids over a long period of time, we establish a well-worn route in our brain that makes it practically an unconscious habit to take them. This is a route that your brain is familiar with. It is well-versed in the intricacies of the game. It's simple to understand.
We are essentially seeking to modify our brain structure when we choose recovery and do something other than use drugs. We must rewire our brains to generate new neuropathways in order to recover, but the good news is that we can accomplish it. We may help mend our brains by practicing persistent and repeated positive recovery habits, just as we changed our brains through addiction. To be honest, that's about as cool as it gets.
Choosing not to use when you get up each day is a completely new way of thinking for your brain. To return to the walking path example, you're blazing a new pathway through the woods. The ground is uneven and unsteady, there are deterrents in the path, and everything is strange and unsettling.
In a nutshell, it's difficult. It's difficult work retraining our brains. (Especially when our brains keep reminding us how much easier it would be to simply revert to our old addiction neuropathway.) To truly develop that new path, it takes time and effort to make it clearer, more familiar, and less painful to walk.
It gets easier over time if we stay with it–especially if we can only get through those first difficult days when our brain is upset and confused–because those recovery neuropathways get stronger and deeper every time we choose not to use.
So, how do we go about doing it? How do we begin to alter our minds? Next time, we'll look at some specific strategies and techniques that can help us heal our brains and develop neuropathways that will lead us away from opioid addiction and into a new, healthy lifestyle.