A (Sometimes) Long and Winding Road
Recovery from any type of addiction can be a monumental task. Even for those ready to take it on, the road can be a painful one loaded with many obstacles. Although, one that will ultimately pay off with better health, better relationships, and overall better quality of life.
Smooth the Way to Your Independence
So, what can be done to ease the pain of transition from a life of dependence to one of self-control and freedom?
While not a ‘one-size-fits-all’, the following 3 tips are proven strategies that can help soften the blows the various phases of recovery throw at you. And, ultimately, lead you to a life of positive practices that will replace the conditions and substances you seek to avoid.
All of these common-knowledge practices seek to establish harmony in and between the brain and the body. When the ‘mind-body’ connections are performing at their best, you will have the greatest chance at overcoming your struggles (whether recent or lifelong).
Addiction Recovery Tips
- Meditate Daily – Research continues to show how sitting quietly for periods of time with a focus on ‘present moment’ sensations like breathing can allow for greater focus, clarity of thought, and self-regulation. Start at 5 minutes and work to 20 minutes daily.
- Exercise Daily – One of the best ways to control and improve functions of our brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) is to do vigorous exercise daily. Get your heart rate up, do resistive and high intensity activities, and, most importantly, move daily!
- Eat Smart – Eat whole foods, eliminate refined and processed foods (i.e. anything in a bag, box, or can), increase healthy fat and protein intake, limit sugar intake (sugar can be as addictive as heroin or cocaine), and stay well hydrated (that means water).
Stay tuned for Part II of II where we will go over the next 3 addiction recovery tips.
The Current Situation – Great Cause for Alarm!
There has been a distinct disconnect between the “mind” and “brain” sciences when it comes to addiction, and what is looked at more and more as being at the root of addiction and substance use – learning and behavioral disorders. In her ground-breaking book, Unbroken Brain: A revolutionary new way of understanding addiction, Maia Szalavitz states:
“Our brains are embodied – much of the problem with the debate over addiction and psychiatry more generally is a refusal to accept this and our ongoing need to see “physical”, “neurological”, and “psychological” as completely distinct.”
There is a fundamental flaw with this outdated thinking, a flaw that has in part led to skyrocketing heroin usage (especially among those ages 18-25) and overdose rates that have quadrupled since 2010. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, illicit drugs cost the US nearly $200 billion annually, just behind alcohol and tobacco use ($224 and $295 billion, respectively). Not to mention, the obvious cost of lives lost, fractured relationships, and communities being torn apart.
Clearly, things are getting worse, not better. Substance use is becoming harder than ever to treat given the broad scope of substances being used, increasing potency levels, rates of consumption, varied methods of delivery, decreasing age of usage, and the numerous learning and behavioral issues those with addiction have prior to onset that have not been appropriately treated (or, treated with medications that may lead to, or complicate, the addiction itself).
At the Root of the Problem
ADHD, anxiety, OCD, ODD, anxiety, depression, sensory processing disorders, schizophrenia, and PTSD are just some of the many learning, behavioral, and mental health disorders that cause people to seek balance in their life through use of chemical substances. The long-held belief that addiction is genetic and an inevitable consequence for the affected, or that substance users are damaged and incapable of recovery, is beginning to dissolve. So are many of the tough love and shaming techniques that have been the norm across the addictions treatment arena for well over half a century.
Time for a Paradigm Shift
To understand that learning dictates behavior, and that impaired learning will lead to behavioral patterns that will set the stage for addiction, is the first step in effectively dealing with substance use disorders. Most learning and behavioral challenges have physical and cognitive manifestations that can be measured (i.e. impaired eye movements, balance, timing, attention, memory, etc.), whether prior to or during the addiction recovery process.
Once these impairments are measured, there are a host of research-backed Brain Training modalities that can be implemented by qualified professionals for correction of deficient function. This will lead to more effective remediation of the learning or behavioral disorder, and, ultimately, the seeking of normalcy through chemical dependence that is hallmark with substance use disorders.
Brain Training for Addiction and Substance Use Disorders
- Brainwave Optimization – Better known as neurofeedback (NFB), neurobiofeedback, or neurotherapy. NFB, while available since the 1950s, has gained significant popularity in the recovery arena as of late. Through sophisticated computer analysis, one is trained to self-regulate brainwave activity by hearing sounds or other reinforcements that signal a more desirable or efficient state of function within the brain has been obtained.
- Training of Brain Timing – Temporal processing is the rate at which sounds can be processed in the brain. When one is unable to process at sufficient and accurate rates, learning will be impaired and behavior impacted. Programs like the Interactive Metronome® have been shown to improve learning capacity, attention and focus, and decrease destructive impulsive and repetitive behaviors.
- Training of Balance – The balance (vestibular) system, which is made up of structures in the inner ear and is directly influenced by systems of vision, posture, and hearing, is directly plugged into our frontal brain. This more “human” part of our brain has a profound influence on learning and behavior and is positively impacted by improvements in balance and coordination.
- Training of Eye Movements – Fixating on a target in your visual field, moving your eyes slow or fast, watching an object move closer or further away, and certain inborn eye reflexes help to make us uniquely human. Many of the control centers of these functions live in our frontal brain. Correction of certain faults in eye movements can lead to improved cognitive abilities.
- Neurological Rehabilitation – While training of balance and eye movements fall into this category, they have been given separate explanation given their heavy influence on learning and behavior. Complex motor skills, whole body vibration, electrical stimulation, strength and conditioning, smell and sound therapies, and so much more impact the brain in a positive way to minimize the effects of learning and behavioral issues on one’s life.
- Metabolic Therapies – To address brain function without paying mind to the numerous nutritional and metabolic factors that go into a properly functioning brain is akin to throwing a bunch of random ingredients together and hoping it turns out like your favorite dish. Blood sugar, stress hormones, neurotransmitters, micronutrients, food allergies, among countless other factors, are just a sampling of what can be evaluated, and in many cases corrected, via dietary shifts and nutraceutical intervention.
A New Era for Addiction and Substance Use Disorders
While mental health therapies have been, and always will be, an integral component of a sound addiction recovery strategy; more is needed. It is abundantly clear that what is in fact needed are scientific, evidence-based strategies to address the underlying learning and behavioral issues that are the hallmark of any addiction profile. What is needed is Brain Training… To measure and manage numerous ‘biomarkers’ of brain function with sophisticated diagnostic testing, and effect positive change in these markers through progressive neurological training modalities. This, in concert with the more traditional mental health options, is what holds the greatest hope for recovery in those battling addiction and substance use disorders!
Ahh, the holidays! Time for many to celebrate their faith. Time for others to reflect on the accomplishments of yet another year gone by, and to plan for an even better one ahead. Time to be with family, give thanks, serve others, and enjoy a break from the normal routines of life. Right???
In a perfect world, yes. Although, the stark reality for so many is that the holidays bring on an increasingly high level of undue stress for more reasons than there are days in the holiday season. Financial struggles, health concerns, passing of a loved one, work deadlines, shopping, travel, crowds, and family squabbles are but a few that can spark fear, worry, sadness, anxiety, and depression in just about anyone; if they are not prepared for it.
Add to this the profound increase in calorie intake (particularly sugars), sedentary behavior, late nights and poor sleep, excessive alcohol intake, travel fatigue, decreased physical activity levels, and a general lack of attention to one’s health this time of year, and you have a perfect recipe for both simple and deadly mental and physical health problems.
While suicide increase during the holidays has largely been proven a myth, there are direct correlations between increased mental and physical stress around the holidays leading to exacerbation of depression and other mental health disorders, and a resultant spike in the number of calls to suicide prevention and substance abuse hotlines. It can be theorized that many around the holidays are thankfully unable to act on suicidal thoughts give the increased presence of friends and family, although self-medication through increased drug and alcohol use over the holidays can certainly lead to worse outcomes after the new year for many.
While this is a piece on stress around the holidays, the importance of physical health (which is directly impacted by stress) needs to be considered briefly. As an example, the journal Circulation published research in 2004 showing nationwide trends in heart attacks increasing by 5% during the holidays, with peak incidences occurring on both Christmas and New Year’s Day. Coincidence??? Certainly not. An editorial in the same edition of this journal discussed further the “Merry Christmas Coronary” and the “Happy New Year Heart Attack” phenomenon – related to increased mental and physical stressors this time of year.
With the gloomy realities and statistics behind us, we can now focus on what is most important – what can we do to prevent or minimize the fallout of the holiday season to ensure we may enjoy it to the fullest, and so that we may proceed with peace of mind, good health, and longevity into the year ahead?
- Drink responsibly. Limit your alcohol intake to one drink every 2 hours in social situations, with water in between to avoid intoxication and dehydration – your brain will thank you!
- Walk away. Don’t feel you must change anyone’s mind about politics, sports, or anything else for that matter. Engage in positive dialogue.
- Reach out. If something is deeply upsetting you, sometimes the worst thing to do is hold it in while everyone else is celebrating. Confide in a trusted source.
- Don’t stress over shopping. Getting into fist fights over the newest TV or toy is clearly not what the holidays are about and will dramatically increase your stress levels. Is it really about the presents?
- It’s OK not to travel. Many are compelled to travel due to family pressures and the like. It is OK to ‘skip a year’ if you are overwhelmed and feel you need a break.
- Get to bed. Sleep cycles are impacted enough going into winter with shorter days and longer nights. Be mindful of sleep routines as they have a large impact on buffering chronic stress responses and clearing your brain of toxins.
- Stick to your regular eating habits. If they are healthy ones, that is. It is OK to ‘sample the goods’ around the holidays, but overdoing it will be sure to weaken your immune system and allow stress to harm your brain and body.
- Move your body. Exercise should be a regular part of your daily routine, especially around the holidays. It minimizes the effects of stress and burns the excess calories you will likely indulge in.
- Meditate. Quiet time away from the distractions of the holidays to self-reflect and calm your mind will reduce stress levels.
- Turn off the tube. TV usage skyrockets during the holidays for many, leading to less physical activity and social disconnection. Decrease computer and social media use while you’re at it!
- Play games, listen to music, tell stories. All activities that will engage your mind and connect you to others around you during the holiday season.
- Connect socially. One of the secrets to stress reduction. Social connection produces hormones that reduce stress. If you have little or no family and friends around, volunteer opportunities abound.
Author’s Note: If you or a loved one is experiencing undue stress during the holiday season (or any season) leading to withdrawn, erratic, or dangerous behavior, increased substance use, trouble at home, work, etc., please know there are resources that can help. Brain Training is a highly effective option for dealing with chronic stress outside of acute or emergency situations. In these situations, national helplines are available and should be utilized:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1.800.273.8255
National Substance Abuse Hotline: 1.800.622.HELP (4357)
Addiction or, more appropriately, substance use disorder (SUD) is defined as one’s recurrent use of drugs and/or alcohol leading to significant clinical and functional impairment. This impairment may be reflected in the areas of physical and mental health, employment, school, relationships, finances, and more.
One thing is for certain – the vast majority of those struggling with SUD also have underlying challenges with learning and behavior, and may have one or more mental health disorders. While the reasons for these underlying challenges are likely as many as the number of challenges themselves, this shifting of perspective away from the genetic view of addiction offers great hope for those seeking progressive therapies that, in many cases, can have a profound impact on the underlying disorders and the problem behaviors and outcomes associated with SUD.
Newer thinking also dictates that addictive tendencies can be due to factors such as concussion and traumatic brain injury, and metabolic imbalances caused by food allergies, environmental toxicities, nutrient deficiencies, and the like. And let’s not forget stress…
In order for progressive brain-based modalities to be delivered effectively, which provide a tremendous complement to standard mental health strategies implemented during both in-patient and out-patient programs alike, one needs to understand that SUD is not a disease as we would normally think of one (e.g. cancer, Parkinson’s, etc.), and it is not a moral failing or a character flaw on the part of the user. SUD can affect anyone… of any class, race, gender, and ethnicity.
SUD is in fact a ‘brain problem’ that, in many respects, can be measured and needs to be approached as such for maximum gains. Let us consider 5 areas of measurement related to brain function that reveal a great deal about learning, behavior, and mental health status; and, more importantly, let us realize that something can be done to improve upon function in any or all of these areas:
- Brainwave Activity (EEG) – In our brain we have networks related to attention, vision, sensations, relaxation, emotions, vital functions, and more. How much delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma brainwave activity we have under different circumstances dictates how well various parts of these networks perform. Quantitative EEG (qEEG) is gaining popularity in select mental health circles as an extremely viable diagnostic tool that can enable us to peer into the inner workings of the brain and these brain networks that make us uniquely human.
- Cognitive Testing – Executive function, cognitive flexibility, simple and complex attention, and processing speed are just a few of the tests of higher cognitive function that can reveal a great deal about how one’s brain interacts with its environment. They are also excellent diagnostic tools for monitoring progress when treating the various subsets of learning and behavioral issues underlying SUD.
- Metabolic Function – Blood sugar, amino acids, urine organic acids, food antibodies, heavy metals, environmental toxins, hormones, neurotransmitters, vital nutrients, genetic variants, and so much more are a mix of both classic and progressive ‘biomarkers’ of brain function. How our bodies handle fuel, utilize nutrients, process hormones, and react to toxins in our environments determines how well our brains handle what is presented to them on a moment to moment basis.
- Eye Movements – Generally ignored in the mental health arena from a diagnostic perspective, eye movements of all types are directly related to the brain regions that control them. From primitive abilities of finding visual targets that involve parts of the brainstem and emotional centers like the amygdala (fear response), to fast eye movements controlled by our higher functioning frontal lobes; eye movements deliver a wealth of information related to SUD and its underlying causes. Videonystagmography (VNG) is one type of diagnostic tool used to measure these types of functions.
- Balance and Coordination – More and more, addiction based programs are implementing movement based activities such as Tai Chi and yoga. From both balance and relaxation standpoints, there is good reason to do so. Our sense of self is largely influenced by our ability to physically interact with our environment. When one has severe balance or coordination impairment, as is seen in conditions like schizophrenia, mental function and behavior will likely be impaired. Measurement tools such as dynamic posturography and standard tests of movement and coordination can be utilized to measure these abilities.
The inherent beauty of any of these tools, that can reveal a wealth of information about cognitive, behavioral, and mental functions, is that they can in turn be utilized to track progress when one enters into a collaborative treatment program with their mental health specialists and qualified functional neurologist. The blending of the ‘brain’ and the ‘mind’ sciences is long overdue and is proving to be clinically effective with regard to its impact on addiction and SUD, and the underlying disorders that are being shown with greater clarity to be the root cause of them.
Drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, sex, gambling, food and shopping are just a few of the most common behaviors and substances that people can become addicted to. Why is it that some people never develop addictions while others give up nearly everything (including their lives) because of them? The answer lies in the wiring of the brain.
Addiction is a Disease of the Brain
While the American Psychiatric Association defines addiction as a chronic brain disease that causes compulsive substance abuse, the exact cause of this disease (whether your brain is wired for addiction because of genetics or environment) is still being debated. But one thing is certain—our environment impacts the way our brains work (for better or for worse). How we live has an incredibly powerful influence on the way our genetic tendencies are expressed. More simply put, what you think, consume, and do will determine the severity of your addiction.
Most individuals with addiction also suffer from other disorders including ADHD and OCD. The same brain regions are involved in most of these conditions, including addiction. Whether developmental in nature, related to injury, or otherwise, there is most often measurable compromise in cognitive networks in the brain that deal with attention, motivation, memory, impulse control, decision making and reasoning.
Neuroplasticity Offers Hope for Addicts
The tenets of neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change and grow based on its environment and experience – dictate that we can in fact change function in the key brain regions related to addiction. Add to this the ever-growing body of research on the impact of physical abilities such as balance and eye movements on cognitive function, and we now have a host of methods to address the impact of environmental factors on addiction.
The Brain Training Approach to Addiction
Brain training is one method of rewiring the brain that offers hope to those suffering from addiction. Neuroplasticity is the core concept that brain training exercises are based upon. Even in the case of addiction, you can change your brain function for the better. What follows are four brain training approaches to rewiring the addicted brain.
- Brainwave Regulation: Delta, Theta, Alpha and Beta are some of the brainwaves that can be measured and trained in individuals with addiction. Through the use of quantitative EEG (qEEG), we are able to map the brain and determine where common patterns of dysfunction seen in addiction exist. Neurofeedback and other modalities, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation – rTMS, are the vehicles through which dysfunctional addictive patterns are broken and healthier brainwave activity established.
- Eye Movement Re-Training: The eyes are more than a window to the soul. Eye function can reveal a lot about your level of attention, impulse control, and other higher cognitive functions within the brain. Recent research from Tel Aviv University demonstrates how involuntary eye movements are accurate predictors of ADHD, the most common condition that occurs along with addiction. Eye movements can be measured and effectively rehabilitated; leading to improvements in impulse control, attention and, ultimately, addictive tendencies.
- Vestibular (Balance) Therapies: Is there a connection between balance and addiction? Absolutely! Over the past half-century or so, the links between our ability to remain balanced and our higher thinking abilities have been well established. A recent paper in Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience explores the connection between the vestibular system (which regulates balance) and cognition. As with many other biomarkers of brain function, balance can be accurately measured with computerized assessment of postural systems (CAPS) testing, and corrected with a number of specific vestibular rehabilitation techniques.
- Metabolic Therapies: Nutrition is often overlooked when it comes to addiction. However, addressing nutritional or metabolic imbalances can be a critical intervention for those suffering from addiction. Most with addiction have extremely poor dietary habits and their brain fuel is compromised. From malnutrition and dehydration, to inflammation and neurotransmitter dysregulation, these problems can be detected and corrected quite easily. Proper nutrition allows for a healthier brain and greater promise for recovery.
By targeting the underlying wiring issues that contribute to addiction, these approaches can increase the effectiveness of more traditional interventions such as cognitive and behavioral therapies and psychotherapy, or counseling.