Rewiring Your Brain

Last Updated: Jan 31st 2020

Reviewed by Brittany Polansky

Have you ever watched a guitar player at the top of their game moving their fingers around on the fretboard so fast that you wonder how they can think that fast? The answer is, of course, they don’t really. It’s what we call muscle memory. 

Athletes, musicians, and doctors learn to practice some tasks so many times that they can respond so quickly that consciously thinking about it slows them down. Addiction and mental illness hijack this ability to reinforce negative behavior, but we can hack it for good as well. Keep reading to learn more about how to rewire your brain for the better. 

Rewiring Our Brains: How Does It Work?

Our brains don’t work the same way computers do, but in many ways, they are similar. As we go about our lives, our brains program themselves in response to surroundings, successes, and failures. If there is something our brain feels is important, it builds faster connections to the ability to perform that thought or action.

In a nutshell, the things we practice the most are the things that get faster connections. It may seem strange to think about it in this way, but when we are thinking negative thoughts, we are practicing negativity. The brain makes it easier for us to think negative thoughts because that’s what it thinks we want. 

The same goes for addictions. While there is a physical dependency on most drugs, there is also a psychological component. When we feel happy from a drug hit, the brain rewires itself to make it easier for us to do the things that caused it, even if it’s harmful.

Our Brains: The Science Behind Addiction

Many people seek drugs to escape to a happier place. Although it’s temporary, an addict may feel like that is their only way to get away from the pain they feel day-to-day. A brain on hard drugs is overcome with an abundance of chemicals – dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, glutamate, and adrenaline. With a single drug hit, you can feel like you just won the lottery.

Reproducing this feeling in our daily lives is a little bit of a different story. Feeling happiness can be a tamer, more controlled feeling. It’s hard to replicate that kind of overflowing chemical excitement in our normal worlds. This is how chemical dependency often starts.

The more you light up the reward pathways, the more your brain demands that you do little else. You are no longer in the driver’s seat. The brain’s pleasure centers do the talking and give the orders.

Sigmund Freud states how “Anatomy is destiny.” The pleasure centers of the brain are areas many people aren’t too familiar with. Examples include the ventral tegmental area, nucleus accumbens, amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex. These names may be new to you…However, they are major parts of your daily functioning. Especially when it comes to substance abuse. 

Here’s the upside. The brain also has a built-in override system, the frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that makes a person moral and humane. The catch is that the frontal cortex needs regular maintenance. You can train this part of the brain to help you.

There are many solutions to overcoming addiction. It may help even to view this as a game of mental strength. Remember, it is you in control. You can choose to “beat your brain” and make it work for you. Building self-awareness, removing trigger environments and trigger friends, finding other healthy outlets, and having a mentor or support group – are all great strategies to help you rewire your brain.

Exercising Your Brain


So, if you’ve realized that your brain is quite good at feeling bad, don’t worry, the great part is that we can rewire our brains. It can take time, and it’s not easy, but if we start exercising our minds, we can create new pathways for good coping skills. 

There are several evidence-based techniques for this, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), mindfulness, mental health rehab, and meditation. Even simple things like giving certain feelings names or breathing in deep and slow when there’s a trigger can sound silly, but they do work.

Methods for Rewiring Your Brain

Rewiring your brain starts with four basic concepts. Recognizing these concepts can help you gain control back into your life.

“What fires together, wires together.”

Addictive behavior is our brain’s and body’s way of reacting to certain stimuli, whether external or internal. What we need to do is form a new reaction to replace the old one. Neural pathways are a way for our brain to form new habits/patterns.

If you consistently respond to stress or triggers the same way, a neural pathway forms in your brain. Then when the trigger becomes apparent again, the brain/body automatically goes to that response. “What fires together wires together” is the most prominent aspect of this philosophy. 

For example, if we become frustrated or experience depression and then decide to take a drink of alcohol or abuse a substance, the physiological changes that take place (i.e., sense of euphoria) reduce the unwanted feelings. Consequently, this causes the cells to wire together so that when we become used to this fixated pattern. The more often we do this, the stronger the synaptic connections become in the brain.

The Perception of Ourselves

We all have the special ability to be able to step outside of our world and observe what’s going on. We can recognize the good and bad decisions we make. In other words, we are not our thoughts; we are not our behaviors or our feelings. We have thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. This allows us to not only recognize negative thoughts or behavioral patterns but to alter them for the better.

This requires us to understand the importance of our thoughts. We have the power to change our toxic habits if we recognize that it starts with reframing what we’ve become so used to.

We recommend doing a series of exercises, such as taking a moment to sit down and talk through some positive affirmations. 

These affirmations can be something along the lines of, “I have the power to change.” “I am full of potential.” “I am mentally strong.” Doing this throughout the day consistently can have immensely powerful benefits. 

Another great exercise is to name the behavior. When you get an urge to use a substance or partake in a bad habit, stop for a moment, and identify the urge. This will help show you that the urge itself is not a part of you. Let’s say you have an urge to take a pill.

Say to yourself, “This is my urge to take opioids.” Once you have stopped to look at it, you can ask some questions that might be helpful, such as “What just triggered this urge?” “What happened just before I had this thought?” 

Total Behavior

Addiction is made up of four components. It is easy to get caught up on the doing component of our bad habit. When we take the time to understand the other three, we allow ourselves to rewire our brain. 

The four components of every behavior are:  

  1. Doing (or active behavior): This is the behavior or action we do use our body. This can be driving to the liquor store, opening up a bottle of pills, or taking a hit of a joint.
  2. Thinking: These are the thoughts we have before or after the behavior. These are often negative thoughts centered around self-loathing.
  3. Feeling: These are the emotions we feel as a result of the thoughts we think or the behaviors we do. This can include feelings such as depression or guilt.
  4. Physiology: The brain releases neurochemicals and hormones that cause a physiological response in the body when we partake in an action. This response typically feels good in the moment when the drug is being consumed. However, this body response can then drive more of the behavior as the body builds up a tolerance.  

The next time you have an urge to do an addictive behavior, notice the urge, name the urge, and replace it with a different behavior first. For example, let’s say you have an urge to grab a drink. 

After you recognize and name the urge that you want to drink, replace it with a more positive behavior. For example, go outside and take a 10-minute walk. Maybe, you can do a mindfulness exercise and do a quick meditation. There are many different options.

Using your Mental Power for Good

What we want is to replace old neural pathways with new ones that supplement the kind of life we want to live. The more we fire the neurons on the new pathway, the weaker the old ones will become. It is important to understand that this can’t be a nonchalant choice. We must become aware of our thoughts. 

Brain research has shown that there is a split-second of time between a thought or urge and the resulting action. This is referred to as “free won’t.” This concludes that before we participate in something that’s damaging towards ourselves, we have the power to take a step back. Within this split second, we can ask ourselves the question, “What positive behavior can I replace this action with?” 

Rewiring your brain is all about replacing toxic patterns. 

Call Us Today

If you’re struggling with drug addiction, don’t shy away from getting help. Many people are in the same boat. No matter what struggle you’re going through, the right treatment can help propel you forward. Rewiring your brain is possible, and we’d be honored to help you.

Our doors are open for you! Our mission is to help you live the life you deserve. We’ll help you get the treatment you need. Call 1st Step Behavioral Health at (866) 319-6126 or contact us here for more information about available programs.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Brittany Polansky

Brittany PolanskyBrittany has been working in behavioral health since 2012 and is a Primary Clinician at our facility. She is an LCSW and holds a master’s degree in social work. She has great experience with chemical dependency and co-occurring mental health diagnoses as well as various therapeutic techniques. Brittany is passionate about treating all clients with dignity and respect, and providing a safe environment where clients can begin their healing journey in recovery.