Addiction is a cruel mistress. A day can feel like a year when you are struggling with addiction and working on recovery. You might wonder how long it will take to rewire your brain and change it from an addiction-riddled mess to the brain of a fully functioning human.
There is a long and a short answer to this question. Ultimately, addiction recovery is a lifelong process that involves lifestyle changes and a huge commitment. But don’t fret. In terms of rewiring your brain, the hardest part takes roughly a month, though big changes don’t really start happening for several months to a year.
We will talk about how addiction affects the brain, what you can do to reverse the impacts, and how you can train your brain to ditch addiction.
What Does Addiction Do To The Brain?
Addiction is a complex topic, one that medical professionals are constantly trying to get to the bottom of. However, there are some things that we know for sure. One of them is that addiction affects the brain in a very specific way, and it takes a concerted effort to turn things around.
For this topic, we will talk about substance addiction, but it’s worth noting that behaviors can also be addictive. We will get into that later.
When someone becomes addicted, the brain hungers for the rewards of the substance or behavior. To make matters worse, your brain builds up a tolerance over time for your addiction. Like how you feel after winning a contest, accomplishing a career goal, or eating a delicious dinner, addictive substances send a message to your brain that you are feeling good and enjoying the experience.
When first becoming addicted, a small amount of the substance will do the trick. However, over time you find yourself needing more and more. This is how addiction grows.
How Your Brain Is Affected by Substances
Drugs and alcohol impact three main areas of the brain: the cerebral cortex, the limbic system, and the brain stem. Many people think of addiction as a psychological ailment that can be controlled if someone only has enough willpower, but this is not the case.
When drugs enter the nervous system, they impact how the brain processes information. Eventually, these impacts can be long-lasting and change how the brain works.
There are a few things that drugs and other substances do to the brain:
- They interfere with brain chemicals, imitating the brain’s natural chemical processes.
- They overstimulate the brain, specifically the “reward” center within the brain.
Who doesn’t love rewards? Our brains are hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. That’s one of the things that makes quitting drugs and alcohol so incredibly difficult. In a normal brain, dopamine is released when something pleasurable happens.
We are trained to know that things like human connection, chocolate, sunshine, and a good movie will make us happy. The problem with substances is that they hijack this system, and we forget what is actually good and what makes us happy.
When we take drugs, massive amounts of dopamine flood the system, which gets people high. That feeling of intense excitement and happiness comes from excessive and manipulated dopamine in the brain. The downside is that when we come down from the drugs, our bodies still crave that dopamine and seek it out.
In addition, it becomes nearly impossible for anything else to rival the high you get from drugs, even if they gave you similar hits of dopamine before. The only thing that can restore your brain to its former state is abstinence.
Scientists have studied what the brain looks like in its normal, healthy state and compared it to brains with addictions to various substances. The brain scans are fascinating and telling. A brain under the influence of drugs looks completely different from a healthy brain, from how much activity is going on to where that activity is taking place in the brain.
When scientists look at scans of an addicted brain vs. the brain of someone who abstained from the substance for a month, they don’t see huge differences. However, after about a year, the brain is almost back to normal.
One thing that non-addicts don’t realize is that there is a fine line between enjoying a drug and needing it. Over time, what was once a substance or behavior someone likes can become something they deeply desire. Eventually, it becomes a thing that they need. The liking decreases, ironically.
That’s why it doesn’t help to be harsh or give ultimatums to an addict; they don’t even like what they are doing! It’s not about willpower; it’s not about an urge to quit.
Individuals with a substance abuse disorder will continue to seek out the drug, no matter the consequences to themselves and those around them. In most cases, the substance is necessary just to feel normal by the time addiction has reached the point of no return.
How Can You Rewire Your Brain From Addiction?
So what exactly can you do to rewire your brain, and how long will it take? We have scientifically proven ways to rewire your brain when recovering from an addiction. It’s not easy, but it is possible!
1. Push Through the Initial Pain
Especially for substance addiction, the hardest part of recovery is right in the beginning. If you have a true substance addiction, you will experience some withdrawal symptoms. For many people who want to quit, they think they can slowly cut down to try to lessen withdrawal. Typically, this does not work.
Withdrawal is messy and uncomfortable, to say the least. Those with severe withdrawal should 100% seek a detox program safely. With many substances, it can be dangerous to come off of a drug without any medical interventions. However, with a little help, pushing through the symptoms will set you up for success.
2. Practice Complete Abstinence
We hate to break it to you, but you do need to stop completely. Your brain is a sensitive machine vulnerable to addiction and even more vulnerable to relapse. You have to convince your brain that you truly don’t need the substance; if you introduce it, it can undo your hard work.
This is not to say that relapse is a trip back to square one. Rather, you have taught your brain that it can survive for X amount of time without the drug. Many people who relapse realize that it was simply not worth it and go right back to abstinence.
3. Replace the Addiction
The reason why many people fail to quit cold turkey is that they are not replacing the substance; they are simply removing it. In the early stages of recovery, the brain looks for its stimuli. It will want the substance if it doesn’t find it in some form.
Truthfully, you are going to want the substance no matter what. However, replacing the addiction with something else that gives you happiness or pleasure will at least dampen the feeling of want/need.
4. Schedule Successes
Studies have found that the feeling of success duplicates the same hit of dopamine that one might get from a substance or behavior that they were addicted to. Consider the feeling of the big moments: getting into your dream college, a victory at work, marrying the love of your life.
Obviously, you can’t duplicate those moments, but remember the feelings? You want to create small successes for yourself every single day. This is why so many addiction programs focus on “one day at a time.” You need to celebrate each day. Many people find creating small goals to be beneficial because you can experience little moments of success.
5. Keep Busy
The brain’s prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that powers your ability to make decisions, think, plan, problem-solve, and show self-control. It is also the last part of the brain to fully mature (around the age of 25), which is one of the reasons why teens and young adults are at a higher risk of becoming addicted to substances than older people.
Give your prefrontal cortex something to do! If you’ve been addicted to drugs for a long time, you are probably only using that part of your brain to figure out how you will get drugs, and you’re certainly not following through on self-control. Again, not your fault!
But now, if you have to work at something like planning a dinner for your friends or making a list of all the books you want to read this year, you’re keeping your brain busy with other work. And the beauty of it is: that work can be fun! The more fun, the better.
6. Change Your Thinking
We know it’s easier said than done. But you have been brainwashed by drugs for a long time. Now you need to do damage control. We love a good mantra. A mantra can be simple and still be effective.
Here are a few that could be helpful to you:
- I’m not going to _____________ today.
- I can do the next right thing.
- Progress, not perfection.
- I like the person I am becoming.
- I choose to be sober today.
- _____________ doesn’t make me happy.
If your addiction is to alcohol, there are some specific ways to reframe your thinking. Alcohol is so normalized in our society that people will question why you are not drinking. Alcohol is pretty much the only drug that most people will kind of scold you for not partaking in.
Remind yourself that alcohol is, in fact, poison. The reason why you feel bad the next day after a night of drinking is that you are poisoning yourself and doing damage to your brain and body.
There’s no simple answer to the question, how long will it take to rewire your brain. The most we can say is that it’s different for everyone, but the longer you can abstain from your substance or behavior, the closer you will be to a life of sobriety and a healthy, non-addicted brain.