The path to recovery is different for everybody, but those with long-term sobriety understand that recovery is not a destination but a journey. Like most journeys, taking recovery step by step keeps life manageable and focuses on the present.
Whether a 12-step program is used or another approach, recovery requires a complete change in lifestyle in order to last. Lifestyle changes are notoriously difficult, because of the way the brain is wired. Many people in early recovery try to make too many drastic changes all at once because they do not understand how the brain works or how to get the brain to work in their favor.
Why step by step works
Matthew D. Lieberman, Ph.D., from the department of psychology at UCLA, describes the various parts of the brain and their functions in two categories: The X-system, named for the “x” in reflexive, and the C-system, named for the “c” in reflective. The X-system is fast, automatic and energy-efficient. This reflexive system allows routine, learned tasks to be done without much thought, and behavior patterns become reinforced the more they are used. The C-system is slower, takes more energy and involves higher order processing. This reflective system also uses a step-by-step approach and can be used to override and modify the X-system.
The brain naturally rewires itself as part of healthy growth and development. The healthier the daily habits are, the healthier the brain becomes and the better the person feels. By repeating the same simple healthy activities every day and avoiding unhealthy ones, the X-system takes over and the new activities soon become new habits. The same brain reward center that was dysfunctional during addiction is now being stimulated by natural means. The resulting positive effects serve to reinforce the new lifestyle.
Where to begin
Getting started on the lifestyle changes required to stay sober does not need to be complex, overwhelming or scary. It does require conscious effort throughout the day, particularly in the beginning. Keeping the most important components of recovery the priority is enough to get started. The three most basic steps in recovery are:
1.Stay clean and sober.
2.Eat well, sleep enough and exercise. Although many aspects of personal recovery programs are unique to fit each individual, healthy eating, sleeping and exercise habits are critically important for everyone. Changes to these aspects of daily life can be made incrementally. For example, having a piece of fruit every day, setting a bedtime and adding a little walk to the day’s activities would be a great way to start.
3.Build a support network. Mutual support groups such as Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous, SMART Recovery and others have helped many millions of people across the world avoid isolation and maintain long-term sobriety. Finding the right group and the right friends takes time, but the rewards are great.
These three steps form the foundation of recovery and the beginning of a new journey. Many might describe this journey not as an art, but as a wonderful, miserable, messy and exhilarating ride. But using the reflective parts of the brain to rewire the reflexive parts little by little truly is an art. After all, to quote Lao Tzu, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Sovereign Health of Florida provides help for those experiencing behavioral health problems, including mental illness, substance use and dual diagnosis. Our individualized care provides support using a multi-disciplined team of professionals and many different approaches to treatment. Our beautiful locations in Fort Myers and Pompano Beach offer comfortable detoxification, state-of-the-art treatment and continuing care after discharge. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.
Written by Dana Connolly, Ph.D., Sovereign Health Group staff medical writer
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