I am six and half years sober from alcohol addiction. It was no easy feat to quit drinking, but through a combination of therapy and changing up my habits, I succeeded. I drank for over 25 years, which is a fairly long time. No doubt, my drinking habit was entrenched in my nervous system, which made recovery more difficult.
Any person with an alcohol addiction will tell you that the initial cessation of drinking is the easy part (so long as you have good withdrawal management support, of course). But it’s the months that come after stopping that can be very challenging. Unfortunately, many people relapse within the first few months because the habit is so strong that they return to drinking.
It turns out there’s a scientific reason behind how addiction is formed into a strong habit. But the good news is, the same way that addiction is formed can also help people recover. The scientific term is called neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity means that our brains and nerves are all capable of being very flexible and changeable. When we utilize our nervous system for a specific habit, let’s say we want to learn how to play piano, we can learn through repetitive use of the same nerves. When we practice playing the piano every day, our nerves change and adapt to the new movements. In a way, we create new habits that slowly become entrenched in our nervous system, making it easier and easier to play better.
Over time, new habits and neural pathways become formed, which helps us learn new things. In a sense, this is how we learn almost anything or form nearly any habit. Over time it becomes second nature because our nervous system has adapted so well to it.
Dr. Dongju Seo, from the University of Yale, conducted a scientific review of how neuroplasticity works in addictions. The review looks at how addiction habits become formed through new neural pathways created from the repetitive use of alcohol. Indeed, the chemical dependency on alcohol is a powerful factor in addiction, but that’s not the only reason why some people get and stay addicted.
Many people are aware that alcohol also affects the reward system of the brain. This means that drinking not only feels calming (at first), but also induces a sense of reward, which has a direct effect on the creation of new neural pathways. In simple terms, the more a person drinks, the more they prime their nervous system to form a habit of alcohol use. The neuroplastic effect here can become strong in some individuals, which makes them more susceptible to addiction. Their nervous system almost becomes good at drinking, just like a person can become good at playing the piano. This makes it harder for a person to refrain from drinking even after they initially stop using. The brain is so primed for use that the potential for relapse is high.
As Dr. Seo puts it, “Continued chronic alcohol-related changes in the prefrontal-striatal-limbic circuit could place individuals in a neurobiologically vulnerable state, substantially compromising their ability to control the urge to drink heavily and increasing the risk that they will resume drinking after a period of abstinence.”
But here’s the good news. The same neuroplastic changes that promote addiction can also promote recovery if conditions are right. Of course, this can be difficult for individuals who have a very long-standing relationship with alcohol. But research says this isn’t impossible. By utilizing techniques like cognitive behavior therapy or mindfulness therapy, the brain can be rewired towards recovery through positive neuroplastic changes.
Neuroplasticity can give some hope to people recovering from addictions. Creating new habits that help support a positive neuroplastic change can be beneficial. This is by no means a quick fix, however. Just as it took a while to create negative neuroplastic changes, it may take a while to develop positive ones that support addiction recovery.
When I look back on my recovery, I think the mix of serotonin-inducing plant-based therapy helped me rewire my nervous system initially. This can also be accomplished using medications, according to Dr. Seo. After that, I worked hard to change daily habits and avoid triggers to train my nervous system to get used to recovery.
For example, I avoided any places or people that evoked the desire to drink. Then I formed new habits through meditation, reading, crafts, yoga, and new morning routines that all helped train my nervous system to live life without the alcohol. Also, the more time I spent avoiding alcohol, the easier it became as my new neural pathways were formed.
Neuroplasticity and forming new habits worked for me, although it may be more difficult for those who have more sensitive nervous systems in response to stress according to Dr. Seo. For those who have a long history and heavier alcohol use, the formation of new neural pathways can be exceptionally challenging, which accounts for a high incidence of relapse in these groups. This points to the importance of early treatment for addiction issues.
Nonetheless, this research can be very promising for those who are looking to quit or reduce their alcohol intake. By understanding the principles of neuroplasticity, we can modify our behaviors after quitting alcohol to reduce our probability of relapse. It’s recommended to have professional help with getting sober, but understanding neuroplasticity may be beneficial for those who have quit on their own as well.