Addiction Recovery and Your Brain

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.”
~Robert Frost

neural pathwaysImagine that you are standing at the edge of a dense forest. You want to go home, which is on the other side of the forest. You see a well-worn path entering the forest, and that path appears to be the easiest way through the trees.

But then, next to the path, you see a sign which reads “This Way to the Party!” An old friend appears and tells you, “Hey, this is a great party! You are missing out! Let’s go!” and he starts to pull you by the arm toward the well-worn path. You are tempted to join him, but on the other hand, you have been thinking lately that going down that well-worn path is not helping you to achieve your goals.

As you are thinking about this, another friend appears, a new friend, and he says, “I’ve got a better idea. I know another way through the woods that’s a little more difficult because it’s not worn as well, but it’s a more direct path and in the long run it will be easier to walk! The more often we take that path, the more well-worn it will become, while the other path will become more difficult to walk down because of disuse!”

Then he grabs your arm and begins to pull you toward the new path.

As your two friends pull you back and forth, you realize that you must make a decision about which friend to go with. Certainly the well-worn path would be easier to walk down right now; the other, newer, path has many trees in the way, with branches to be pushed aside and dead trunks to be either moved or stepped over.

Both paths have their benefits.

The well-worn path will lead you to certain relief from the pressures of the day, and it’s so easy; you’ve done it thousands of times before. And it’s familiar; you know what will be waiting at the end.

But the newer path also has benefits. You won’t be beaten, robbed or worse on the way home. When you get home your spouse and children won’t be angry with you, you won’t take your anger out on them, and you will still have money in your pocket. You know that tomorrow you won’t be hung over, you won’t be late for work and you’ll be able to do a better job.

What choice do you make if your choice is between ‘easy and familiar’, or ‘harder and more beneficial’ to your long-term health and happiness?

Your ambivalence becomes more and more uncomfortable as your arms start to feel as if they are being pulled from their sockets! Since neither friend is about to let go of their own volition, you realize that the only way to overcome one of them is to make a choice and add your own energy to the energy of the friend you choose. Only with these energies combined will there be enough force to get the other friend to let go.

Let’s suppose that this time you decide to throw in your energy with the new friend. The next time you are on your way home and you get to the forest, your two friends appear again. Only this time you can see some evidence that what your new friend told you is true: the new path now has more appeal. It has been walked through recently and some of the dead trees have been moved out of the way.

Not only that, but the path to the party now looks a little less attractive. There are beer cans strewn about which makes the path look a little unsightly. Funny that you never noticed them before. Also, for the first time, you notice that it doesn’t smell so great and that your old friend is a bit unkempt.

As your old friend begins to tell you what a great time you missed at the last party, your new friend breaks in. “If we use the newer path again, the next time it will be even more cleared out and easier to walk through, and the old path will be more overgrown and harder to walk through. Remember how much better you felt the next day after you walked down the new path? C’mon – let’s go.”

Your two friends grab your arms and begin to pull in opposite directions, but this time the choice is easier to make, and you more quickly and decisively throw your energy in with your new friend.

The pathways of the forest are analogous to the pathways through the neural networks of your brain. The more a pathway is used, the easier it is to traverse. The less a pathway is used, the harder it is to traverse.

You may have spent years clearing a neural pathway to the ‘party spot’. You may have been pruning that path with great care. You may have even paved it! If you have been repeating this behavior, reinforcing the old neural pathway to the party spot for a very long time, it’s the most natural thing in the world for you to choose that path again and again as your default path.

But what if you decide you want to make a change? The way to effectively clear a new neural pathway is through vigorous use!

In addition, clearing the new neural pathway and using it daily has the added benefit of causing the old neural pathway to atrophy.

It is important to realize that it can take some time for your new neural pathways to be developed and your old ones to atrophy.

As with other positive changes to your body, this requires some expenditure of energy to accomplish, in just the same way that the addition of your energy was required to break free of one of your friends at the entrance to the forest.

Your two friends in the forest exist in your own mind as neurotransmitters down one pathway or another. Sometimes, especially for people new to the concept of ‘automatic thinking’, they seem not to exist as thoughts which can be put into words, but as non-verbal visceral desires. By learning to recognize and assign words to these strong desires, you can more cogently and elegantly reinforce the ‘new friend’, strengthen the new pathways and allow the old pathways to atrophy.

And in doing so, you can blaze a mental super highway of sobriety, laying waste to your seedy “boulevard of broken dreams”.

Source: Adapted from a “Classic Post” on the SMART Recovery Message Board

SMART Recovery is a non-profit, volunteer, mutual self-help peer support group. It is a program based on REBT/cognitive therapy methods that provides a “toolbox” designed to allow you to take back control of your life. We provide a supportive network, while YOU develop the skills for lasting change. Visit SMART Recovery to learn more.

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