How to Retrain Your Brain To Kick Bad Habits and Addictions
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Editor's Note: The following is an interview with Cynthia Moreno Tuohy, the author, with Victoria Costello, of Rein In Your Brain: From Impulsivity to Thoughtful Living in Recovery.
Martha Rosenberg: Your book reminds me of the right brain/left brain books that used to be popular, only you contrast the limbic brain with the cortex brain.
Cynthia Moreno Tuohy: Leading from our "limbic" is a survival technique that many of us learned in our families of origin or from time spent in unhealthy relationships. The limbic system drives us to seek the short-lived comfort of substances (alcohol, drugs, sex, food, gambling) or things (shopping, cars, adult toys) to numb real or imagined pain. The limbic is looking to be soothed from the irritations and stresses it feels in the emotional part of the brain.
The cerebral cortex, on the other hand, is our "thinking brain," which gives us the ability to reason and think when we stand still in that moment of irritation before we make a gesture or speak a word.
MR: Rein In Your Brain offers "10 Big Ideas" to help people avoid "going limbic," which sounds a lot like "going postal." Can people actually retrain their brains?
CMT: Yes. We know that the brain works on habitual patterns that set a groove in our brain pathway and we follow those patterns. For example, someone who is used to drinking at 5 o'clock will be comfortable until that time, but then his body (through a brain impulse) will crave the alcohol. These patterns, neural pathways, can definitely be changed—it takes time and it takes learning how to build the brain patterns through thought and behavioral patterns.
To learn a new pattern from date of onset takes about 30 days and then our brain begins to feel somewhat comfortable with that new pattern. When we use drugs and alcohol, we can destroy our endogenous opioids that are naturally produced in our brain by flooding our brain with other drugs that are external to our system. When we move into recovery, we can regenerate these endorphins and endogenous opioids and the limbic system will eventually feel better through the new patterns we set in our brain.
This book teaches a person how to release the limbic patterns and build new neuropathways to the cortex, causing the limbic to feel soothed with these new pathways. At first, the limbic system will fight these changes—it is comfortable with the patterns that have been established, and building new thoughts and behaviors is unfamiliar and therefore, uncomfortable. With repetition and the building of the other skills, as one keeps doing the behavior, the brain will eventually “believe” the behavior and thought patterns and integrate them into the personhood of that specific person.
MR: One of my favorites of your "10 Big Ideas" is the one about avoiding "premature forgiveness." Some recovery programs emphasize quick forgiveness of resentments whereas others caution people that these can also be boundary and self-respect/self-esteem issues.
CMT: I personally gave out “premature forgiveness” for years because I was afraid that I would lose a relationship and due to my background had severe abandonment fears. Many of us in recovery have high regard for others' opinions and values and not for our own. I would not talk about what I needed and I would acquiesce all my rights, opinions and needs as a human being.
When you say that a hurtful thing that is done to you is "not that important" and suggest that it be forgiven and forgotten about, you are saying to yourself and others that you are not worth respect and positive affirmations and thereby don't have rights or expect them from others.