How to Retrain Your Brain To Kick Bad Habits and Addictions

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.

MR: You write that not giving premature forgiveness can be a teachable moment, but certainly there are people who will respond to a boundary—e.g. "you can't do that anymore"—with derision.

CMT: Sometimes you have to ask, it is worth it to stay with this person at this cost? It is helpful to look at our life scripts and see where these ideas about our self generate from, again, often in our family of origin issues. In the book I discuss the family systems that causes the compulsive labeling and behaviors of the hero, scapegoat, lost child and clown and ask the reader to consider if this as well as other conflictual patterns learned in family systems are derived and our willingness to agree to different types of abuse as well as how to change those systems of unhealthy living to systems of healthy living.

MR: Can you give examples of how using the cortex instead of limbic part of the brain has positive results?

CMT: Using the cortex in communicating with people is especially valuable in dealing with teenagers and other people who are not mature yet. I will give you an example. Say your teen does something "wrong." Instead of going to the shame-and-blame limbic brain in which you might say, "You did this again!" you go into the thinking brain and you say, "I thought we had an understanding about this behavior and am wondering if I am confused as to our agreement…please help me remember what we agreed to as to these boundaries" or whatever the specific issue is that you are addressing.

MR: This seems to encapsulate other of your Big Ideas like "Stand Still in the Moment," "Do Not Assume Intent," "Dig Deeper into the Conflict" and "Put Down Your Dukes."

CMT: Yes. Not only does this reaction suspend judgment and seek more information, it invokes the young person to also move their neuropathways into their "thinking" cortex to offer an answer. The whole family changes. It is amazing.

MR: Can you give an example of how the Big Ideas work in your personal life?

CMT: My children offered me a living laboratory for changing from impulsive to thoughtful living and I practiced these principals as they grew up. When my daughter graduated from middle school, the principal said to me "I don't want to see Chelsea graduate."

My limbic system was ready to be insulted; however, my cortex sought more information and I "dug deeper" and asked, "What causes you to say this?" My daughter, he said, was invaluable in settling student/student conflicts, student/teacher conflicts and even teacher/teacher conflicts. He asked if the teachers could be taught the principles my daughter had been taught.

Everyday life is stressful in itself and when we add family of origin or addiction/mental health issues to our brain stressors, we have for the making of difficult and unhealthy lives. This book assists the person to identify those patterns and trauma and actual methods to change and introduce a new lifestyle that can change their own life and those around them It is a contagious way to live healthy!


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