Rewiring Your Brain After Addiction: Understanding the Timeframe and Benefits


If you are currently researching treatment for how rewiring your brain after addiction help, you might be wondering how long it takes for the brain to heal itself once you’re sober. Well, you’re in the right place! 

In this article, we’ll look at the areas of the brain affected by addiction, how the brain rewires during recovery and how long this process usually takes.

We’ll also explore some of the additional ways you can support this process, the role that therapy plays in this rewiring process and some of the other treatment options available. 

Areas Of The Brain Affected By Addiction

Our brain is very impressive, and the most complex organ in our body. Weighing in at around three pounds, it is central to all of our activities. We need it for everything from breathing and eating to having empathy or writing a poem. 

The brain is made up of billions of cells, these are called neurons and they organise themselves into circuits and networks. The brain uses these systems to send signals to the rest of the body. 

Unfortunately, drugs and alcohol can interfere with how the brain works. Firstly, substances change the way neurons send, receive and process their signals. Depending on the type of substances, certain neurons can be activated or manipulated to release an unusual amount of neurotransmitters. Suffice to say, all substance abuse affects the brain. But which areas in particular? 

The basal ganglia are involved with motivation, habits and pleasure derived from things like eating, hanging out with friends and having sex. You might have heard of the brain’s reward circuit, well substance abuse can over-activate this circuit which is why substance abuse can lead to a euphoric high. Unfortunately, over time, the circuit adapts and becomes less sensitive, meaning you will struggle to derive joy from little else in life. 

The extended amygdala is also affected by drug use. This part of the brain plays a role in feelings of stress including anxiety and irritability. Again, this circuit can become sensitive with prolonged substance abuse and in time a person who abuses substances ends up using to get temporary relief from these uncomfortable feelings, rather than to feel euphoric. 

Another area of the brain affected by drugs is the prefrontal cortex, which is all about your ability to be rational, solve problems and have self-control in the face of impulses. Oscillating between this circuit and the previous two mentioned circuits can cause a person with drug or alcohol addiction to seek compulsively, resulting in less impulse control. 

Certain substances can also affect other parts of the brain. For example, opioids impact the brain stem which is used for the most basic functions including breathing and temperature. This is why overdoses can cause depressed breathing and result in fatalities.

How The Brain Rewires In Recovery

The good news is, our brains are resilient and they have an impressive ability to repair themselves even following prolonged or excessive addiction. 

This remarkable ability is thanks to the concept of neuroplasticity, which is our brain’s ability to build new brain cells and neural pathways throughout life. In effect, we can always adapt, change, grow and reorganise, even after addiction. 

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When Does Brain Chemistry Normalise After Detox?

The bad news is, it can take a while! How long it takes for the brain to heal itself will depend on several factors including which substances were taken, for how long and the level of damage incurred. Sadly, there are some cases where substance-related brain damage can’t be reversed.

Generally speaking, the longer the person has abused alcohol or drugs, and the more severe that abuse is, the longer it takes to rewire the brain. 

But we get it, you want a timeframe to work with. In some cases, this rewiring process can take as little as a month, but it’s common for it to take multiple months. In some cases, it can be a much longer process. 

The best approach to take is to give your brain the best opportunity to heal that you can, and don’t stress too much about how much time that takes. Read up on neuroplasticity, commit to your recovery and support your brain health with healthy habits like exercise, sleep and good nutrition. 

Can You Heal Your Brain Cells After Addiction?

As we discussed previously, it is possible to heal your brain after addiction. And the good news is, there are several ways you can help support and speed up that process:

The Brain Rewiring Process

For the brain to heal, what we are essentially looking at is the brain becoming reprogrammed so that the substance-seeking behaviours become less appealing and cease. 

In most addiction cases, people will experience a trigger and that automatically makes them experience a craving for their substance. This trigger could be anything: the smell of a pub, a social rejection or a withdrawal symptom. 

The brain needs to get rewired to lessen the sting of those triggers. This is a process in which the brain learns how to react differently to those triggers. So for example, let’s use the example of a social rejection that drives a person to seek out alcohol. Instead, you would teach the brain to interpret that rejection differently and help it develop alternative coping strategies that are healthier than seeking alcohol for numbness. This could be speaking with a loved one, going on a run or journalling. 

How Does Behavioral Therapy Help the Brain Heal?

Behavioural therapy helps the brain rewiring processes as it helps the person to learn to identify their triggers and develop the appropriate coping mechanisms. This is an important part of treatment because everyone’s situation is unique, everyone will have different triggers and respond best to different coping mechanisms.

Why Does Drug Abuse Damage Our Brains?

Drug abuse damages the brain because it interferes with the brain’s neurons and their circuits, over time reducing their sensitivity.

Drugs flood the body with dopamine, and so the brain reduces its own dopamine production in response. It adapts to the high levels of dopamine and when it doesn’t have it, it starts to seek it (through cravings). 

Over time, this leads to changes in brain chemistry and function, as well as structure. Normal rewards just don’t compare with drug abuse when it comes to pleasure circuits. This is why people who abuse drugs or alcohol often report feeling flat, sad and lacking motivation and are unable to enjoy activities that they used to find pleasurable. 

The only way they can seek pleasure, and keep the bad feelings at bay, is to resort to substance abuse. This is a vicious cycle that gets worse over time resulting in tolerance, where a person needs more and more of the substance to get the same effect. 

rewiring your brain after addiction

Therapy and Counselling

Getting the right treatment is crucial if you are going to get sober. While detox is usually necessary for addiction, it is not the whole answer. Removing the physical dependence on the substance is just the start. 

Therapy or counselling can help you to work on your mindset and attitude when it comes to substance abuse. The right treatment will help you become capable of handling life’s inevitable ups and downs without feeling like you need the support of substances. 

There are plenty of types of therapy and counselling on offer, different frameworks work best for different people but some of the most commonly used ones include:

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT): CBT is an evidenced-based therapy with a practical, solutions-based approach to recovery. During a CBT session, you will learn to identify triggers, work on your mindset and develop healthier coping mechanisms. 

Family therapy: If you are going to be reliant on your family as a support network, family therapy can be a really useful tool. It isn’t about blame, instead, it focuses on repairing relationships and educating about the nature of addiction. 

12-Step Programs: Based on AA’s popular program, 12 step style programs provide a clear and proven framework for recovery. The peer support aspect works really well for many people and is often used to supplement more formal forms of treatment. 

Treatment Options to Help The Brain Recover from Addiction

Addiction is a treatable disease and there is plenty of good research into which treatments work most effectively. While there is no cure for addiction, it can be managed successfully and someone can heal their brain and regain control of their lives.

After admitting to themselves they have a problem and reaching a place where they are ready to change, the first stop for many people is entering into a detox program. This will involve going through a withdrawal process which can be quite unpleasant and include symptoms such as depression, anxiety and insomnia. Fortunately, if you opt for a medically managed detox you can access support and medication to help you manage this transition as comfortably as possible. 

Once your body is no longer physically dependent on the substance you have detoxed from, you will be ready to undertake further forms of treatment. Usually, these will be behavioural therapies such as CBT, family therapy and 12-step programs. 

If you’re ready to start your recovery journey or would like to find out more about the first step, give our friendly team a call at 0808 271 7500 

FAQs 

How Long Does It Take for the Brain to Rewire?

The time it takes to heal the brain after addiction will vary depending on a variety of factors including which substances you took and for how long. In general, the rewiring process can take as little as a month but more commonly several months, and in other cases it can be a much longer process. 

How Long Does It Take To Produce Dopamine Again?

You can expect normal levels of dopamine production to resume within several months, in many cases. However, for some people, this can be a longer process.

How Long Does It Take To Break a Bad Addiction?

Breaking an addiction is a complicated process in which you’ll need to address the physical dependence as well as the triggers that resulted in the addiction. Depending on various factors, this process can take weeks, months or longer. 

How Long Does It Take to Balance Brain Chemicals?

Depending on the substance abused and for how long, you can expect your brain to heal over a course of several months. In some instances, this is a longer process. 

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