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 like depression, anxiety, and addiction are caused by “biochemical brain imbalances.” While this view has removed a great deal of the stigma that was once associated with chronic mental health problems, it also may send the implicit and unfortunate message that change and recovery is not possible. If depression, anxiety, and addiction are diseases of the brain, how can anyone possibly change their brain? Isn’t the function and structure of the brain, like any other organ, determined by genes and fixed from birth?
The answer emerging from neuroscience research of the past decade 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 and important challenges to the neurobiological model of mental illness), many scientific studies 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! 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 build the size and strength of their muscles through physical training.
So what does all this groundbreaking and fascinating 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 who have been diagnosed with a mental and/or substance use disorder to transcend their challenges to live a healthy and meaningful life. Innovative ways of helping people recover are continually being developed and tested, with promising results. The Trinity Institute for the Addictions at the FSU College of Social Work is dedicated to advancing new methods of promoting recovery. Through my work at Trinity and through my prior work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I have developed a new type of mental training program for people struggling with addiction, mental health problems, and chronic pain 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 their unhealthy habits and/or addictive behaviors, reduce their negative emotions (like feelings of anxiety, anger, and hopelessness), and improve their psychological well-being. I am currently conducting a clinical trial to test MORE as a way to combat chronic pain and problems related to prescription painkiller use – a growing epidemic in the U.S. and a frequent headliner in Florida’s news media.
Although this study is still in process, 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 one 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 towards 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” (SAMHSA, 2011). The latest neuroscience findings on neuroplasticity and results from clinical research on psychological therapies like mindfulness training and cognitive-behavior therapy provide strong evidence for the notion that recovery from mental health problems and substance abuse is possible. Time and time again, cutting-edge science and clinical findings reveal a simple, hopeful, and powerful truth: treatment is effective, and people do recover.