Updated: Mar 8
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein
Maintaining sobriety is hard. And part of what makes it even harder is that the brain chemistry of problem drinkers may be playing a crucial part in whether or not we eventually succumb to cravings and relapse.
During my first month of sobriety, I stumbled across this article outlining how even binge drinking can alter the neural pathways in the brain, creating an “impenetrable coating [that] cements neurons involved in alcohol addiction into a circuit that is extremely difficult to break.”
This results in an “overwhelming compulsion to drink.” Although this particular study was conducted on mice, there are a plethora of other scholarly articles on the subject of neuroplasticity and addition.
Neuroplasticity has to do with the brain’s ability to rewire itself, deleting and adding neural connections as needed. Although there are approaches that suggest the brain can be rewired after addiction pharmacologically, I don’t agree with the approach of throwing more drugs at an addicted brain in order to “cure” it. I have opted for a more natural way of rewiring my neural pathways. My ultimate hope is to end cravings and “cement” my sobriety.
Conveniently, I have read a few books on neuroplasticity. One which I feel has a simple approach is Rick Hansen’s, “Hardwiring Happiness”. The premise of Hansen’s book is that we can re-wire our neural pathways by harnessing the power of neuroplasticity. He states we can “activate mental states and then install them as neural traits.”
According to Hansen, “You can use the power of self-directed neuroplasticity to build up a lasting sense of ease, confidence, self-acceptance, kindness, feeling loved, contentment and inner peace.” Isn’t this what every person is ultimately seeking?
Hansen suggests four simple steps using the acronym HEAL.
· Have a positive experience
· Enrich it
· Absorb it
· Link positive and negative material so that positive soothes and even replaces negative.
I have used this practice for the past five months in the ways below, focusing on the joy of sobriety. According to the book, you can use the process with pretty much any experience that brings you joy, happiness, contentment, etc.
First thing upon waking
Waking up in the morning I will lay in my bed and revel in my feelings of contentment. I focus on how cozy I feel and on being present with the feelings of comfort and well-being. I then focus on this feeling in my brain and stay with how happy it makes me while I simultaneously think about how horrible a hangover feels.
I keep the positive feelings larger and at the forefront of my mind and keep the negative in the background as I am trying to override it with the positive. At the same time, I would think about how wonderful sobriety is and how I wouldn’t have this cozy feeling of well-being if I hadn’t quit drinking.
During Walks with My Dog
On daily walks with Rocky, I have a new focus on nature. It is pleasureful to watch my dog simply enjoy himself smelling plants and rocks and trees. There’s a lot to learn from animals and from nature about being present and happy. My dog never tires of the route and I find that amazing, so I decided to start seeking out different aspects of the walk every time we go out.
It might be as simple as focusing on the simple feeling of both a light breeze and the warmth of the sunshine on my skin or noticing a pretty flower garden that I haven’t acknowledged on past walks. I then focus on the overall wonder of nature and think about how this simple enjoyment would not be possible had I not quit drinking.
Most of the time I was hungover and I rushed through the walks just wanting to get them out of the way. It is an entirely different experience now and I am hardwiring the joy from my observations and experiences of nature on the walks as part of my newfound sobriety.
While Visiting with My Husband
In conversations with my hubby, at meals and throughout the day, I relish in the sheer pleasure and joy of connecting with someone on a level that is not possible under the influence of alcohol. I focus on the great conversation that we are having and the authenticity involved. I relish in the pure joy of our laughter and connection.
There have been times that we start truly cracking up like I remember doing in junior high. That laughter that you can’t stop, that hurts your stomach but feels wonderful at the same time. That’s pure magic and it doesn’t happen genuinely with an addictive substance in your system.
When Staying Up Late at Night
I can never really stay up late, I am one of those people that falls asleep during movies while reading a book, basically as soon as the sun goes down, which makes winter a struggle!
However, on those rare occasions when I have been up past my bedtime watching a television program or movie or reading or writing, I think about how wonderful it is to be present and able to stay up later knowing that the next day I will wake up fresh and ready to face the day. I let how great that feeling is swimming around in my mind and remind myself how it wouldn’t be there without sobriety.
By testing out Rick’s Hansen’s process, I found that using it to hardwire sobriety has not only strengthened my resolve to stay sober but also has made me a happier person.
I was never a person who thought that I would be happy while at the same time not having everything I want in life or having to face difficulties, but I can feel myself growing into that person now and it is truly a gift to be treasured.
I’m no longer the type of person that thinks I’ll be happy when I’m the kind of person that thinks I’m happy now. I never thought this would be possible.
I have now not only hardwired my happiness about sobriety but my happiness in general.
I feel this practice has resulted in my understanding that I can be happy and face life’s challenges simultaneously. And being happy while navigating life definitely makes everything easier.