Stinking Thinking and Changing the Brain

In the 12-Step program there is a term called “stinking thinking” There are good reasons for this! Disruption in certain areas of the brain due to chronic alcohol and drug use effect the way we think, the way we process emotions and respond to stimuli. Well-supported scientific evidence shows that disruptions in three areas of the brain are particularly important in the development, and maintenance of substance use disorders: the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala and the nuclei called basal ganglia.

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for judgment, reasoning, and suppressing impulsive behavior and managing emotional reactions. That is why after a few drinks you lose some of your inhibitions and feel more confident venturing out of your usual comfort zone.

The main function of the amygdala is to regulate emotions, such as fear and aggression. The amygdala is also involved in linking emotional meaning to our memories. reward processing, and decision-making. The amygdala activates a fight-flight-freeze response when we are triggered. Research has shown that alcohol interferes with activity in the amygdala and inhibits the synapses between the prefrontal cortex which impairs our ability to think about what we are feeling.

The basal ganglia refer to a group of nuclei responsible for motor control, as well as other roles such as motor learning, executive functioning, and emotions. In the brain, alcohol and drugs can disrupt the transmission of signals through the basal ganglia and impact how we process information.

Many addicts/alcoholics suffer from reactivity and impulsiveness along with bouts of fear, anxiety, obsessive thought, and anger. Our brain is designed to change through our experiences. Whatever we repeatedly sense, and feel is slowly but surely sculpting our neural structure. If we keep resting our mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts and stress, then our brain will be shaped for greater reactivity, anxiety, depression and inclinations toward anger, sadness, and guilt. At Crossroads we use a myriad of therapeutic techniques to allow the brain to recover and function normally. Here are just some of the modalities that our therapists use:

Cognitive-behavior therapy begins with the scientific understanding of negative thoughts and obsessive thinking. Rather than frustrating you with the unrealistic goal of stopping thoughts, cognitive-behavior therapy helps by weakening the connection between ruminating, obsessive thinking, and the rest of your waking life. In other words, faced with the reality that there is no on/off switch, CBT turns down the volume while working to develop new, more effective sources of emotional responses.
Cognitive Restructuring allows us to step back from emotional thinking, engage a wise mind (the ability to utilize both reason and emotion), that is informed by our feelings, and grounded by a healthy appreciation of objectivity and reason.

Acceptance-Mindfulness Therapy is a modality that helps us stay focused on the present moment and accept thoughts and feelings without judgment. It aims to help us move forward through difficult emotions so we can put our energy into healing instead of dwelling on the negative.

Behavioral Activation: The goal of treating “stinking thinking” and obsessive thoughts is to “get out of your head” and into your life. Behavioral activation is focused on just that – setting specific goals to engage in meaningful, healthy behaviors.

Relaxation is an integral aspect of recovery! Learning to gentle down, relax and take care of the body as well as the mind is crucial to sobriety. Through our programs of yoga, meditation, and other exercises we learn to let go, and manage destructive urges both physically and emotionally.

These are modalities and tools that support recovery. However, at Crossroads we know that no two people are exactly alike. There are many factors involved that make up our clinical plans: history of trauma, family dynamics and genetic make-up. Change requires courage, persistence, and emotional fortitude to practice new ways of thinking and behaving. There is no magic bullet or quick fix to recovery but with persistent practice of these tools comes the opportunity to diminish stinking thinking, obsessive thought and have the quality of life we long for and deserve.

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