Every day of our lives, we make decisions – for better or worse. However, we don’t always recognize the changes in our brains that are wrought by these behavioral habits, despite the great importance of both. This should certainly be acknowledged by those emerging from addiction treatment programs, given how a neural “rewiring” of the brain can aid recovery.
Imagine being stood on the edge of a dense forest. There are two potential paths leading to your home on the other side of the forest. One path looks well-worn, and seems to represent the easiest route through the trees. But you then notice a sign suggesting that this path leads to a party, with an old friend then appearing and telling you that you don’t want to miss out. He even begins to pull you by the arm down the well-worn path… and you’re tempted, as you have walked down this path many times before, and know what awaits.
But you’re still curious about that other, more mysterious path. This, in many ways, represents the dilemma confronting patients of addiction treatment programs. In this imagined scenario, a new friend of yours may appear, suggesting that you take this lesser-worn path instead. He might suggest that although it is a little more difficult to walk through right now due to various fallen trees and shrubbery, it is a more direct path home.
Furthermore, the new friend says that the more you take this new path, the easier the path will become, while the other path will fall into disuse, becoming harder to walk down. Ultimately, your choice is between the ‘easy and familiar’ and the ‘harder and more beneficial’. Under pressure to make a decision, you decide to join your new friend down the less well-worn path.
On further occasions, you return to this same junction, and are again persuaded to take a particular route by your two friends. However, you notice that the previously most well-worn path has become a little more difficult to walk down, due to overgrowth and litter. The final destination might not look so attractive, either. You find that it becomes easier and easier to take the more beneficial path that had previously looked too difficult to take.
These pathways can serve as an analogy for your brain’s neural networks. You will find a path easier to traverse the more often you use it, and less easy to traverse the less often you use it. Clearing a new neural pathway depends on vigorous use. Over time, as this new neural pathway strengthens, the old one atrophies. Those aforementioned two friends, meanwhile, are neurotransmitters down the respective paths.
When patients of addiction treatment programs learn to recognize these visceral desires, they can learn to recover through a continual reinforcement of new, more beneficial pathways, at the same time as weakening old ones – all to the aid of a genuinely sustained recovery.