by Jennifer Martin Rieck, LCPC
Unlike days of old, when it was thought that the brain grew and developed in youth and then stopped, we now know that the brain is continually growing. Additionally, the brain is continually pruning itself. Neuroscience has discovered that the human brain actively removes neural pathways that aren’t used, and is continually creating new pathways. This is one reason why the general consensus around addiction is that abstinence is the only way to completely overcome addiction. Once a neural pathway has been created and repeatedly used it is very hard to not initiate it.
“The brain is continually pruning itself, actively removing neural pathways that aren’t used, and continually creating new pathways.”
Imagine a race where all of the participants are lined up and anxiously anticipating the loud sound that signals the race has begun. Eventually the runner’s bodies automatically respond to the sound and run with everything they have once they hear the shot fired. They don’t stop until the cycle is completed. This is often true of alcoholism or drug addiction. Once the initial behavior has occurred, whether that be taking a drink, using a drug, or even eating, the neurological pathways are initiated and the race has begun to complete the cycle. It becomes clear then that by avoiding the initial drink, or whatever behavior you are desiring to be rid of, you are stopping the utilization of the neural pathway and preventing its growth.
This is also why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is so useful in addiction, because it aims to create new thoughts and behaviors, new neural pathways. Rather than the drink, the drug, the food, being the thing that you are first seeking to avoid, you are identifying the thought that leads to the feeling that leads to the drinking, the drug, the food. By learning to tackle and address the thoughts and feelings that cause one to cope by utilizing addictive behaviors, new pathways leading to healthier coping skills are formed and the previous ones that lead to binging are averted.
“By learning to tackle and address the thoughts and feelings that cause one to cope with addictive behaviors, new pathways leading to healthier coping skills are formed and the previous ones that lead to binging are averted.”
If you struggle with addiction to behaviors and you want freedom, stop looking at the finish line and look at the starting line up. The next time you feel compelled to start down a familiar addictive road, back up and think about what led to the impulse.
Steps to averting addictive behavior by paying attention to what led to the impulse:
Be mindful of your body first. What are you feeling in your body? Are you feeling anxious: tightness in your chest, rapid breathing, sweating, clammy? Are you feeling nervous: butterflies in your stomach, stomach upset, dread, fear, restlessness? Are you feeling stressed: clinched jaw or fists, tightness of the chest, tension and tightness in your shoulders or other places?
Think about your feelings. Are you feeling sad and tearful, low or depressed? Are you feeling lonely, desiring companionship or support? Are you feeling angry, like you are trying to protect yourself from someone or something?
Now, back up and try to remember what triggered these feelings or sensations. Was there a thought, a belief about yourself or someone else, that led to those feelings?
If you can identify a thought or a belief that led you to experience those sensations or feelings, then you know where to begin your work! Wrestle with the thought, challenge the thought, talk back to the thought. If the thought is nothing more than an inner voice of criticism, a self-defeating bully, then I invite you to create your own mental image of how to defeat this bully. Be creative here. I sometimes imagine the thought as a baseball passing by, which I quickly bat out of the park. You might imagine flicking a bug off your shoulder or putting a lid on a box, a box that then gets locked away or burned.
If you find that thoughts and feelings that you have are confusing, or you are unsure how to proceed, perhaps counseling would be beneficial. A therapist can provide helpful insights and new tools for dealing with the struggles that you are having. Processing your current struggles can lead you to a greater understanding of yourself and put you on a pathway to healing.
At the end of the day, your mind is yours. You can’t control a passing thought, but you can control whether the shot gets fired and the race begins.
For more information on managing unhelpful or critical thoughts, see my post on fighting thoughts.
If you feel that you struggle with asking for what you need, see my post on asking for help.
To read more about neuroscience as it relates to trauma read my blog Pieces of the Past: How Unprocessed Trauma Leads to Disassociation.