Leading-Edge Science Supports the Notion of Recovery

Image By Sandy Burns

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.

New Research Study Accepted for Publication! “Attentional bias for prescription opioid cues among opioid-dependent chronic pain patients”

I am excited to announce that a scientific article I wrote with my colleagues Brett Froeliger (Duke University), Steven Passik (Vanderbilt University), and Matthew Howard (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) was recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. This article details the first evidence of an attentional bias toward prescription opioid cues ever documented in the scientific literature! We found that among a sample of people with chronic pain who were prescribed opioid painkillers, those individuals who met diagnostic criteria for opioid dependence paid significantly more attention to opioid-related images than opioid-users in chronic pain who were not dependent on opioids. To measure attention to opioids, we used a neurocognitive task that looked something like this:

Participants were shown two pictures (displayed either for 200 ms, or 2000 ms), side by side, on a computer screen, and were asked to “choose the side with the dot” by clicking a button on a keypad. The computer recorded their reaction times down to the millisecond. We found that, compared to non-dependent opioid users, opioid dependent people were significantly faster to choose the side with the dot when the dot replaced an opioid photo than when it replaced a neutral photo.  This reaction time difference indicated that their attention was captivated by opioids. Also, the more they reported craving their opioid medication, the more their attention was biased towards the opioid photos. This effect was evident for cues presented for 200 ms (that’s one-fifth of a second!), suggesting that this attentional bias occurred automatically, unconsciously, and before participants even had time to think about what they were doing.

So what does this research mean in terms of helping people with addiction and chronic pain? The study findings suggest that people who take opioids for chronic pain may develop an automatic tendency to be fixated on their medication, even when they don’t want to be. This tendency might make it difficult to stop thinking about opioids, causing craving, distraction, or other kinds of disruption in life. It might even lead to taking more medication than is necessary, although the current research study cannot answer that question.

If future studies replicate these findings, the opioid attentional bias may be an important treatment target for people struggling with prescription opioid misuse and addiction. Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) is designed to address attentional bias and may be particularly helpful in that regard. My preliminary research on MORE as a treatment for alcoholism found that MORE had a significant effect on attentional bias for alcohol cues. Research is currently underway to determine if MORE can have a similar effect on the opioid attentional bias.

Recovery from Addiction, Stress, and Pain through Mindfulness and Social Support

I am honored to have the opportunity to discover new ways of helping people heal and recover from the challenges in their lives. For the past several years, I have been busily engaged in developing a new therapy for people struggling with chronic pain and problems with prescription opioid painkillers through a study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. I first developed this new therapeutic approach, which I call Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement, for an earlier study I conducted on alcoholism that was funded by a Francisco Varela Award from Mind and Life Institute. Mindfulness is an expansive and fundamental concept that has been pursued for millennia as a means of ameliorating suffering – look for more posts here soon about it. I am studying how this new treatment compares to a conventional support group. Support groups are a widely-used form of psychological support for people dealing with health and mental health issues that can be extremely helpful.

My approach to helping people is focused on promoting the basic goodness and inherent capacity for growth that lies within each person. I have a lot to say on this topic, but my latest thoughts can be summed up with an image:

In a way, this upward spiral of mindfulness, meaning, and positive emotion may be viewed as the converse of the downward spirals of addiction, stress, and pain that have become a modern day epidemic.

Downward Spiral of Pain and Prescription Opioid Misuse, Abuse, Dependence, and Addiction