Over the past several decades, there has been an explosion of research demonstrating that our feelings and thoughts are closely tied to the function of our brains, so much so that the 1990s were heralded as the “Decade of the Brain” by the Library of Congress and the National Institutes of Health.
Neuroscience has come to have a powerful influence on our concepts of mental health, leading many people to believe that forms of psychological suffering such as depression, anxiety and addiction are caused by biochemical imbalances. While this view has removed a great deal of the stigma once associated with chronic mental health problems, it also may send the unfortunate message that change and recovery is not possible. How can we possibly change someone’s brain? Isn’t the function and structure of the brain determined by genes and fixed from birth?
The answer emerging from neuroscience research is an unequivocal “no.”
We now know that the brain grows and changes throughout childhood, adolescence and even into adulthood and old age. A number of factors can stimulate changes in the brain, known as neuroplasticity, including stress, diet, exercise and even learning experiences. So, if chronic states of depression, anxiety and addiction are partially the result of brain dysfunction (and, to be clear, a number of scholars have raised serious challenges to the neurobiological model), many scientific studies also demonstrate that learning and practicing new ways of thinking, acting and responding to the challenges in our lives can change the way our brains function. Not only that, but research is beginning to demonstrate that the very structure of our brains can be modified by mental training, not unlike the way people lift weights to strengthen muscles.
So what does all this groundbreaking science mean for the idea of recovery from mental-health and substance-abuse problems? It explains how addiction treatment and mental-health services can help people transcend their challenges to live healthy and meaningful lives. Innovative ways of helping people recover are continually being developed and tested, with promising results.
The Trinity Institute for Addictions at the Florida State University College of Social Work is dedicated to advancing new methods of promoting recovery. Through my work at Trinity, I have developed a new type of mental training program called Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement, or MORE.
MORE combines mindfulness training, cognitive-behavior therapy and positive psychological principles into an integrative treatment strategy designed to help people increase self-control over unhealthy habits or addictive behaviors, reduce their negative emotions (like anxiety, anger and hopelessness) and improve their psychological well-being. I am conducting a clinical trial to test MORE as a way to combat chronic pain and problems related to prescription painkiller use.
Other studies suggest that mental training programs can be very helpful. For example, in previous research, my colleagues and I found that mindfulness training reduced chronic pain symptoms by 38 percent and psychological stress by 31 percent. Another of our studies indicated that mindfulness training helped people struggling with alcoholism to recover after being exposed to addictive triggers by calming their nervous system reactivity back toward baseline levels. Other research suggests that mental training programs, including cognitive-behavior therapy and mindfulness training, can alter brain function and significantly reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety, often with lasting, positive effects.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines recovery as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” This month, National Recovery Month, it is important to know that, time and time again, cutting-edge science and clinical findings reveal a simple, hopeful, and powerful truth: Treatment is effective, and people do recover.
Eric Garland, Ph.D., LCSW, is an assistant professor at the Florida State University College of Social Work and the assistant director of the College’s Trinity Institute for Addictions. His book “Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement: Reclaiming a Meaningful Life from Addiction, Stress, and Pain” will be published by NASW Press later this year. To learn more about his work, visithttp://csw.fsu.edu/faculty/eric-garland andhttp://drericgarland.com. To access substance abuse and mental health treatment in Tallahassee, contact the Tallahassee Memorial Hospital Recovery Center at (850) 431-5910 or the Behavioral Health Center at (850) 431-5100.