Unlearning and Relearning Brain Patterns for Successful Addiction Recovery

There is a growing and welcome trend in addiction treatment where the focus is on the underlying and root cause of the addiction rather than on the symptom of the addiction itself. Traditional 12 step treatment programs believe that addiction is a life- long incurable disease and thus requires a lifetime of symptom management of daily meetings, avoiding triggers (which includes avoiding many people places and things), staying chronically hypervigilant and “on guard” as the addiction is just lying in wait to sabotage you, and in some cases requiring the use of prescription medication protocols to help with cravings and other symptoms.

The new paradigm of non 12 step treatment places the focus on trauma treatment and healing PTSD symptoms. This is a vital paradigm shift in how we need to treat addiction. However, to be fully recovered from addiction we must take a two-pronged approach. In addition to becoming aware of and healing the underlying core trauma and wounding that are often the cause of our need to self-medicate emotional pain, we must also “unlearn” the addictive patterns and learn new daily tools and practices for living a healthy lifestyle free from disempowering and unhealthy addictive thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Cutting-edge science and research are now validating that addiction is a learned behavior that can just as easily be “unlearned”.  This may oversimplify the mind, body, soul nature of the addiction and its underlying causes, yet it does provide a better map for understanding the nature of the addictive behaviors.

If addictions are symptoms or, coping strategies, to help medicate soothe and numb underlying trauma, pain and suffering, it is of course important to identify and heal the core wounds. However, this is not where the recovery story ends. If so, the rate of relapse would not be as severe as it is. The addiction, which starts as a survival skill, eventually becomes a separate problem by literally changing a person’s neurophysiology.

All addictions, whether substance or behavioral, stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward neural pathway. Dopamine creates the feeling of pleasure, so we associate the use of the substance or behavior with pleasure. The use of the specific substance or behavior is initially highly rewarding, and we want to do it again. Thus, any continued and sustained use of substance and a behavior will become a habit and eventually an addiction.

The continued behavioral pattern of addiction then creates new neural pathways, which is called neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change, adjust and learn. Because of the brain’s remarkable plasticity, addiction reassigns neural circuits to attach the highest value to a substance such as heroin, sugar, alcohol, gambling, sex, etc., at the expense of other interests supporting holistic health and well-being, such as family, work, connection, purpose and meaning in life.

So, beyond the core issues as to why a person begins an addiction, the addiction then takes on a destructive life of its own by disrupting neural pathways and processes associated with desire, habit formation, pleasure, learning, emotional regulation and cognition. Addiction literally creates hundreds of changes in brain anatomy, chemistry, and cell-to-cell signaling.  In effect, “Addiction is a pathological form of learning,” says Antonello Bonci, a neurologist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

This is good news for addiction treatment and relapse prevention. If addictions are learned, then recovery can be “learned” as well. However, creating new “recovery” neural pathways cannot be rewired and reassigned through healing the underlying trauma and core issues alone. The brain must be rewired through a specific set of evidenced-based therapeutic protocols that help create new neural networks for recovery such as, but certainly not limited to, mindfulness techniques, HeartMath biofeedback, EMDR, brain supplement protocols, gut health nutrition and energy medicine.

Please visit our Science page to learn more about The Sanctuary’s evidence-based approach to integrative addiction recovery, or call us at 1.877.710.3385.