Untreated addiction can alter both the structure and functioning of a person’s brain. During treatment and early recovery, as the individual’s body adapts to the absence of addictive substances, their brain can also begin to heal. To gain greater insights into the many elements that contribute to successful recovery, experts continue to study how long it takes to rewire the brain from addiction.
How Do Drugs and Alcohol Affect the Brain?
Addiction is characterized by a loss of control. When a person develops a substance use disorder (which is the clinical term for addiction), they will experience overwhelming urges to use a substance, even after they have incurred significant harm that is directly related to prior use.
Two other classic signs of addiction are tolerance (needing to use larger amounts of the drug to experience its effects) and withdrawal (developing painful physical and/or psychological symptoms when unable to use the substance).
These symptoms – uncontrolled behavior, tolerance, and withdrawal – all indicate that changes have occurred in a person’s brain as a result of their substance abuse. Of course, not everyone is impacted by substance abuse and addiction in the same way. The effects that alcohol and other drugs can have on the brain can vary depending on several factors, including:
- Which substance or substances the person has become addicted to
- How long they have been struggling with untreated addiction
- The amount and frequency of their substance abuse
- If they have any co-occurring mental health concerns
In general, here’s how alcohol and other drugs can affect the brain:
- Addictive drugs can trigger a flood of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that is associated with motivation, pleasure, and elevated mood.
- Over time, the continued abuse of addictive substances leads to synaptic plasticity, or changes in the small gaps between neurons in the central nervous system.
- Neurons communicate by passing messages across synapses. Synaptic plasticity disrupts the body’s ability to maintain appropriate levels of dopamine and perform other essential tasks.
- Disrupted neural communication can have a dramatic negative impact on a person’s mood, attitude, and behavior.
What Does it Mean to Rewire the Brain From Addiction?
When experts talk about rewiring the brain from addiction, they are typically referring to the process through which the brain heals itself from addiction-related synaptic plasticity.
The ongoing abuse of alcohol, cocaine, opioids, and other drugs causes observable structural changes in the brain. When a person stops abusing these drugs, the brain can begin to repair the damage that occurred in the synapses and other parts of the central nervous system.
The ability of the central nervous system to heal, repair itself, or otherwise adapt in the aftermath of certain medical conditions, injuries, and other negative experiences is known as neuroplasticity. The concept of neuroplasticity is often discussed in the context of healing from stroke or traumatic brain injury (TBI). Experts now understand that it also plays a role in recovering from addiction.
How Long Does it Take to Rewire the Brain From Addiction?
As is the case with so many aspects other of addiction and recovery, there is no simple, universal timeline for how long it takes to rewire the brain from addiction. The degree of damage that a person’s central nervous system incurred due to substance abuse can influence how long it takes to rewire the brain from addiction. The types of treatment a person receives can also play an important role.
According to an August 2019 article in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, physical exercise has proven to be “an effective and promising additional therapeutic tool” for helping to rewire the brain in the aftermath of prolonged substance abuse. This article, which was written by a team of Brazilian researchers, was based on a small review of literature related to the effects of exercise on people who have struggled with addiction.
“In the same way that physical exercise is advised for treating other diseases, the neuroplasticity promoted by aerobic exercise may indicate its usefulness as a potential additional treatment for individuals with [a substance use disorder],” the article’s authors wrote.
“Specifically, these benefits may be seen in brain areas related to executive control, such as those areas involved in inhibition of drug-seeking behavior and impulsivity, as well as in decision-making regarding drug consumption,” the researchers added.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, has also proved to be an effective means of harnessing the beneficial aspects of neuroplasticity to rewire the brain after addiction. In a June 2020 post on the Harvard Health blog, Maria Mavrikaki, PhD, described CBT as “a learning-based therapeutic intervention … [that] utilizes neuroplasticity.”
During CBT sessions, people can learn to replace negative thought and behavior patterns with more productive ways of thinking and acting. CBT’s ability to reinforce these types of beneficial changes is related to the brain’s ability to rewire itself when presented with appropriate stimuli.
Neuroplasticity “helps us learn new skills and retrain our brain,” Dr. Mavrikaki wrote. “As the brain can change in a negative way as observed in drug addiction, the brain can also change in a positive way when we adopt skills learned in therapy and form new, healthier habits.”
Begin Addiction Treatment at Phoenix Rising Recovery in Palm Springs, California
If you have been struggling with an addiction to alcohol or another drug, you can find the path to successful, long-term recovery can begin at Phoenix Rising Recovery. Our addiction treatment center in Palm Springs, California, is a safe and welcoming place where you can take vital steps toward a healthier and more hopeful future.
Treatment options at Phoenix Rising Recovery include detoxification, residential rehab, and multiple levels of outpatient care. In each program, you will work in close collaboration with a team of skilled and experienced professionals. To learn more about our services, or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Contact page or call us today.