Neuroplasticity – Recovery & Transformation
Recovery and Transformation are often felt to be impossible for individuals with addictions or mental health problem as depression, anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and other stress or painful conditions.
There is new hope with the advances in neuroplasticity, neuroscience and its technology to identify, modify or change neuro-circuitry, behavior, responses and reactions. Progress in better understandings of the psychology of the human mind and behavior have contributed to greater success in overcoming what was known previously, which in the past was considered hopeless and beyond the reach of those who had been affected by unrelenting, disabling conditions. The study of other healing methods and traditions, as the 12-Step-Programs for addictions, also has led to more successful integrative treatment programs.
As in the first two steps of 12-Step-Programs, for addiction recovery, there must first be the acceptance of the disease as such, and realization of the impossibility of recovery without profound change. Pursuing treatment on a superficial level for an addiction or any other persistent or chronic illness often fails, such as making limited attempts to make cosmetic changes in one personal way, learned habits, or in the expectation that medication will help. To the person afflicted, life has become unmanageable, and the individual “me” admits to being powerless to make the deep changes needed for recovery. The nature of the illness often has led to feeling hopeless, helpless and powerlessness.
The reason for repeated failures or relapses is that a person unsuccessfully tries to use what was learned from earlier life as:
- non-effective coping
- use of manipulation and attempts to control others and the environment
- efforts to rebuild failing relationships to fulfill unmet needs for nurturance, love, and acceptance
- repeated ineffective efforts to feel sufficient, empowered and adequate
To recover and transform, one has to get beyond ego, personality, habits, reactions, and behaviors.
If there comes a realization of the powerlessness to change the existing status quo, the opportunity exists to embrace the insight that there are the greater potentiality and possibilities beyond a person’s individual ways and self-identity. When one can’t find any viable alternatives from the repertoire of prior failed actions and behaviors – one has “hit the wall” or “rock bottom” – survival is threatened, the need to tap into a greater “well of resourcefulness” hopefully becomes apparent. After running out of the “customary” choices for survival, there has to be a willingness to let go of the old and embrace options out of the larger sphere of positive possibilities – turning one’s life over to a “higher power.”
The idea for acceptance of a higher power is confusing to some that come to 12-Step-Programs, who may associate this with earlier life negative religious experiences or associations with an abusive authoritarian or dominating figure, especially if there has been traumatic abuse. Gaining flexibility to explore and invest in behaviors or practices to bring about recovery and transformation is what is needed. When stuck in an inflexible state of a rigid self, one needs to shift from an unproductive personal belief about power and control existing in the limitation of individual development and programming since birth, to the realization that there is much more: a greater potentiality, a higher resource beyond the personal limitations and rigid entrapments.
One of the barriers to change relates to deep held core beliefs of:
- not being safe
- not being loved
- not being enough
- not being worthy – burdened with guilt and shame
Arriving at a place of great despair, a “dark night of the soul,” there is a need of letting go of the established, old limiting “ego identity.” Embracing spiritual attunement becomes the only viable option, with an acceptance that there is a greater field of possibilities and potentialities, where love, acceptance, and inclusion prevail. Embracing the essence of being – the higher power – allows for profound empowerment and motivation for the steps required for transformation – restoration of “sanity” as identified in the 2nd of the 12 Steps.
is the experience of personal awakening, beyond the constriction and restriction, set by the trained and programmed part of the mind (the ego) – to a higher level of perception, realization, and functioning. A new developing integrative addiction treatment program in Asheville, NC – Center for Spiritual Emergence (see their website) – describes spiritual emergence as a “natural opening and awakening that many people experience as a result of coming to terms with the difficulties of life, through an established faith tradition, as a result of systematic spiritual practices or through unexpected peak experiences. Spiritual emergences gently allow one to experience and embrace their natural connection to the transcendent domain, forever changing their limiting self-concepts into a more integrative, awakened self”.
as presented by Lawlis in his well-done book – Psychoneuroplasticity Protocols for Addictions (Lawlis et al. 2015) is portrayed as an evidence-based science with restorative, rehabilitation, and transformational tools and applications. PNP is founded on developments in neuroscience, neural therapies, rehabilitation medicine, addiction and other integrative approaches to mental health treatments. Though the book focuses on evidence-based treatment approaches for addiction, it is very applicable to the care of other mental health issues and problems and supports the value of integrative approaches and therapies. Brain plasticity is based on the understanding of brain activity, neuronal circuitry, and the ability for the stimulation, modification, retraining, and growth of nerve cells and their complex networks.
Positive brain plasticity can be helpful in many problematic areas as:
- cognitive processing, worries, physical pain, migraines
- emotions, depression, anger, reactiveness, stress
- anxiety, fear, phobias, obsessiveness, distractibility
- alertness, focus, arousal, ADHD, brain fog, fatigue
- PTSD, sleep disturbance, addictions, cravings, over-weight
To set the stage for healing, recovery, transformation, and neuroplasticity, any difficulties in above noted areas, may need to be addressed early on. Several are discussed in greater detail below.
Anxiety and fear
can be a disabling condition and a major interference with life and productivity and can act as a barrier to recovery from other mental health condition, including addictions and other health problems. The following can contribute to anxiety or panic like conditions:
- unmanaged stress
- prior life losses and trauma
- lack of adequate parenting or an early life nurturing environment
- adverse effects from medication and drugs
- life-threatening physical illness
Resulting impairment can become chronic with only temporary relief, if any, from drugs or use of substances that could be harmful to one’s health and well-being. Studies of brain waves often will show high-frequency beta waves in localized regions of the brain suggesting increased activation and the need to retrain and repair the brain’s neural networks to more relaxed frequencies and a healthier state. Mental health professionals sometimes will label people as having other mental health conditions or personality disorders, like borderline personality disorders, because they have not been able to grow and mature emotionally. The behaviors and personality may be related to earlier life abuse, persistent severe anxiety, and feelings of being overwhelmed – resulting in resistance or the inability to resolve severe chronic anxiety that blocks healthy development around their families, social network, and peers.
Traumatic life events
can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can either be of a simple type where there has only been one major traumatic event or complex where there have been multiple accumulative traumas. A person’s life development can get stuck in a time-relation to an earlier trauma. Integrative type treatment protocols and therapies focusing on treatment of trauma, as those presented by Lawlis (Lawlis et al. 2015) have the potential to bring relief by relieving the emotional connection to trauma memories and supporting positive brain changes and plasticity . The use of neurofeedback type treatments as the BAUD (bioacoustical utilization device) can disrupt the reconsolidation of traumatic memory and has been shown to relieve symptoms of PTSD (RESET Therapy). Relaxation or stress-reducing therapies, music, meditation practices, breathing techniques, nutritional diet, neuro-biofeedback and skill development can be a part of neuroplasticity enhancing protocols. Other sensory or trauma-focused therapies as EMDR, are also utilized to form new and healthy neuro-circuitry and response patterns.
can interfere with recovery and be due a multitude of factors including:
- response to negative life events, chronic stress, trauma, and losses
- low self-esteem
- genetics, nutritional deficiencies, and medical illness
- toxic environmental exposure including to drugs and alcohol
With depression there may be associated: ruminations and obsessional thought, as seen in OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder); anxiety; loss of productivity; feelings of loss of control; loss of interest in things; a downward spiral of increasing depression and development of suicidal thinking, which can lead to loss of life or complication with other medical illness. If suicidal thinking occurs, immediate help should be sought from mental health professionals.
The brain, if studied with EEG brain wave studies in identified areas of the brain, will show a pattern of under activation and low voltage waves. Neuroplasticity focused protocols look for healthy interventions to bring these areas of the nervous system back online and restore responsive feelings, energy, joy and happiness without the individual resorting to using potentially dangerous drugs or chemicals. Intervention may include therapies as noted above including:
- neurofeedback or neuro-therapies, BAUD
- psychotherapies including trauma-focused therapies as EMDR
- exercise, nutritional diet, supplements
- sound, rhythm, aroma, movement, and dance therapy
- mindful meditation, breathing techniques
- social network development with active peer support
- coping, relapse prevention, and social skill development
Cyclic patterns of disturbed emotions and behavior
can interfere with recovery. These can present as periods of irritability, rage, heightened anxiety, obsessiveness, sleep disturbance, periods of dramatic increase in activity and hyper focus alternating with times of fatigue, depression, loss of motivation and loss of interest in things. These patterns are sometimes labeled as being in the Bipolar Spectrum (see Dr. Parks article) but can also be related to PTSD and prior accumulative trauma. Many of the above-noted treatments and others are considerations to correct altered behavioral pattern, skill deficits, dysfunctional brain patterns, and neuro-circuitry.