Rewiring the Brain

If you’re in recovery, you may be familiar with the common trope of “rewiring your brain”; the concept of completely changing the way you engage the world around you, starting from the ground up, or perhaps more appropriately, your inward thoughts to outward actions. It’s a common phrase that doesn’t come with an instruction manual making it difficult to know exactly how to initiate the ambiguous process of “rewiring your brain.”

To rewire the brain means to gradually change the brain’s behavioral response to engrained stimuli through intentional actions or meditated affirmations that, in time, become habitual. For example, suppose a person smokes a cigarette with their coffee every morning. In that case, the brain becomes trained to run on autopilot essentially and associates the act of waking up with the scent of coffee brewing and then needing a cigarette. It becomes a routine that signals the brain that it is time to have a cigarette. An abrupt disruption in this process (e.g., quitting cigarettes) can cause the brain to go haywire, so to speak, as the neurotransmitters responsible for dopamine are desperately searching for their established signals. This is referred to as psychological (the smell of coffee brewing, the act of lighting a cigarette, etc.) and physical (the reliance on caffeine and nicotine to feel awake, content, normal, etc.) dependence. For many people, to remove elements of a routine that the brain considers essential (cigarettes and coffee), the withdrawal symptoms associated with an abrupt change can be overwhelming. Thus, a more gradual approach is necessary to train the brain that a change is happening, but at a pace that the brain can adapt to more comfortably, a.k.a. rewiring the brain.

This psychological reconfiguration process is not exclusive to substances. Negative self-talk, eating habits, world-view, time spent on the internet, or social media habits are all neurologically established routines adapted through various methods. Some people find success in repetitive actions, while others may turn to meditation or group accountability. Sometimes it’s as easy as changing scenery or avoiding the familiar faces and places that one associates with self-destructive behaviors. Or, as I will attempt to demonstrate in the exercise below, rewiring the brain can happen via the way you view, treat, and talk to yourself.

For this article, I’m focusing on some of the common psychological characteristics or distinctive personality traits that I have observed prevalent in people who suffer from substance use disorder. Generally viewed as undesirable or hindrances, these traits often result in negative self-talk, low self-esteem, or a sense of detachment from friends and family. What if, instead of beating ourselves up over these seemingly intrinsic traits, we rewire our brains and turn our “defects of character” into superpowers?

Definition of superpower in recovery

What is the Definition of a Superpower?

A superpower is not necessarily a skill but a way of thinking.  It’s your own perspective and way of doing things that make you who you are. It’s unique to you, like a thumbprint.

As silly as it may seem, changing how our brains communicate with our sense of self effectively transforms nearly all aspects of our mental, emotional, and physical well-being. It is beneficial for those in early recovery struggling to manage a sense of identity and self-acceptance outside of substance use.

Steps to finding your superpower in recovery

Steps to Finding Your Superpower

Ask yourself the following questions and, if applicable, consider how they relate to how you view, talk, or treat yourself.

  1. In moments of introspection, do you ever feel “different” from everyone else and wonder if you’re the only one who thinks and feels the way you do?
  2. Have you ever been out with friends or family and gotten stuck in a comparative thought-loop between yourself and the people around you, battling hypotheticals with a constant bombardment of perceptual projection?
  3. Have you experienced trauma, pain, loss, grief, anxiety, depression, loneliness, or restlessness to the point of seemingly losing control of conscience actions, words, or thoughts?

Well, you may be able to find some similarities between yourself and the superheroes you see in movies.  After all, superheroes are a reflection of the people who write them into existence. With feelings, thoughts, characteristics, and stories, people like you and me are anything but superhuman, but each of us has unique qualities that can be used to be our own superheroes.

To better understand where I’m going with this, let’s briefly examine the common narrative structure of any given superhero story (or any story, for that matter). First, there’s the preamble or the status quo way of living followed by an initiating incident. This initiating incident is a catalytic event that sets the story in motion, typically forcing a character out of their comfort zone. Next is the rising action, in which a protagonist pursues a goal in reaction to the event. In this phase, the protagonist’s character is tested in a variety of ways, such as willpower, morals, and mental fortitude. Then comes the climax. There will be an “all is lost” moment where the character believes they have failed in this phase. They are faced with their greatest challenge involving a moral decision or a confrontation that pushes their physical or mental capabilities beyond their perceived limitations. Finally, we come to the resolution, where a character learns something from the experience and the residual effects of their action/reaction or choices.

If we boiled down every story written into general thematic sections, the overwhelming majority would have elements that fall into the above framework. The only substantial differences between them are the details. In Superhero stories, the differentiating fact is the main character being enhanced with an incredible power that is unique to them. This power is often portrayed as a burden or curse until they learn to harness it and use it for the greater good. Their stories start with a tragedy like losing a loved one, feeling different from their peers, being misunderstood, living in fear of judgment, or other ways they struggle to cope with their reality. Ultimately, each will have something to overcome, and ironically, it is typically their human qualities that will be tried and tested on their respective journeys.

Now, if we were to take this information and apply it to our own lives, it’s easy to see how we can attribute certain aspects of our own stories into this common structure of storytelling. If we take it a step further, I believe the case can be made that superhero stories are incredibly applicable to the journeys of those that embark on the path of recovery from drugs and alcohol. Though entirely derived from my observations, some common characteristics seem inherent in most people I’ve met through my recovery. Granted, everyone’s story is different, and the details that compose the narrative of our lives are infinitely varied, but the elements that make us human remain consistent. If, for example, we take a story like Tom Sawyer and compare it to Spider-Man, we can draw similarities between their experiences that define their humanness. Beyond the obvious geographical, generational, and historical differences, the biggest difference between the two is that Spider-Man had a superhuman power, and Tom Sawyer did not.

Tom Sawyer and Spiderman

Suppose I was to apply the characteristics I’ve found to be commonly shared of the people I’ve met in recovery into this framework. In that case, certain traits become apparent that could be used to loosely define what makes people suffering from addiction “different.”

From my experience, let’s look at a few of the most prominent traits I have encountered. Again, this is entirely anecdotal and based purely on my observations. With that said, people with addiction or in recovery tend to be:

Sensitive

  • Not always over-sensitive, but often easily moved, touched, or impacted by things they find meaningful (e.g., music, books, movies, etc.)

Empathetic

  • Often feel deeply for others, especially those who have similar experiences.
  • Feel compelled to solve someone else’s problems or to ease the pain of others.

Hyper-Aware

  • Tend to be incredibly wise, perhaps due to trauma, anxiety, etc.
  • Constantly trying to “read” the room or other people.
  • Overly/unnecessarily apologetic in situations that do not call for it.

Emotional

  • Often make emotionally-driven and reactionary decisions that could be viewed as compulsive.
  • Heightened sense of emotional awareness to their detriment (i.e., use substances to alleviate the exhaustion of perpetual “over-thinking.”

Compassionate

  • They care deeply for others and often take on the role of confidant amongst their peers.
  • Seek recovery-related careers with an emphasis on helping others.

Intelligent

  • Some of the most intelligent people I have ever met have been through the shared spaces of addiction treatment and post-treatment recovery.
  • Possesses a high capacity for observation, analysis, contemplation, and comprehension.

Strong

  • Contrary to how many may view those with addiction, there are few people who I consider stronger than those who have gone through the tumult of active addiction and found the strength to ask for help, seek recovery, or thrive in a life of abstinence.

While not every person in recovery or active addiction will relate to all of these characteristics, the chances are that one, a few, or more may stand out as traits that you find within yourself. These traits are also not exclusive to those in recovery. Most people who do not suffer from addiction will also relate to some of these characteristics. These are just observations I’ve found prevalent within the recovery community in general.

Putting the Steps Into Action

Now let’s bring all of this together.  For those in early recovery, you’ve probably heard a lot about “rewiring the brain.” We have considered the ways narrative structure mirrors the human experience and touched on the similarities that can be drawn between superhero stories and those who suffer from the disease of addiction. If we take the incredible, superhuman abilities out of the superhero equation, we’re left with a story like this:

  • Character experiences tragedy, grief, pain, loss, inner turmoil = “I am different.”
  • Character struggles to cope with the burden of emotional weight, turns to an external source to alleviate the pain.
  • Character reaches a pivotal point where a choice must be made that will have a lasting impact.
  • Character finds acceptance of their circumstances and, as a result, learns to harness the thing that makes them “”
  • Character uses their unique perspective, ability, or story to do good and help others.

Sound familiar? To me, it seems pretty consistent with almost every story of experience, strength, and hope that has been shared in the multitude of recovery meetings I’ve attended over the years. This brings us to the purpose of this article: rewiring the brain by changing the way we consider the prevalent traits that appear to be inherent within our community as superpowers rather than detriments. I’ll use a trait of my own as an example:

I am too sensitive —> I am Sensitive

  • I recognize the beauty found in words, songs, and emotional expression.
  • I recognize how each can be used to invoke pain or be used to inflict harm.
  • In recovery, I have learned to utilize my sensitive nature by considering the power of the words I choose to use before I say or write them.
  • I am now more aware of how my choice of words or how I say them can be hurtful, and I recognize moments that my words can be used to lift, inspire, or share perspective with a person who may need it.
  • I am not too sensitive.
  • Sensitivity is my superpower.

If you’re struggling to come up with your own, here are a couple that you can try out:

  • If you are empathetic, use this ability in a way that lets people you may know who are struggling that they are not alone and that you understand how they feel. It may be just what they need to change the course of their life.
  • If you are hyper-aware, use this power to recognize the body language of silent calls for help, unspoken discomfort, agitation, or anxiety, and check-in with the person behind these non-verbal cues with a simple, “Hey, is everything ok?”

There are so many ways to positively utilize many traits that seem inherent for people who suffer from addiction. We truly are the authors of our own stories, despite the commonalities that have come to define the human experience. It’s important to recognize the power behind the many characteristics that make us all uniquely different. Perhaps, to truly harness the superpowers within all of us, we must change the way we consider certain truths about ourselves that we repress because they make us feel “different.” It requires first, of course, a “rewiring of the brain.” Then as silly as it may be, I believe it is a fun exercise in which we consider how our unique traits can be viewed as superpowers. So, what’s your superpower?

Jared Henry is a content writer for Herren Project.  He is a Herren Project alumni and a proud person in long-term recovery.