Learn / How Long It Takes to Rewire the Brain From Addiction and What to Expect
When you stop using drugs and alcohol, it takes time to rewire your brain. The exact timeframe depends on several factors. For example, certain drugs lengthen the rewiring process. Some practices can also help you recover faster. Learn about what influences this aspect of healing.
Addiction hijacks your brain’s reward system. Specifically, it affects dopamine. This neurotransmitter relates to feelings of happiness and achievement. Activities like exercise, spending time with friends, and engaging in a hobby can all trigger the release of dopamine.
When you have an addiction, your brain associates a certain activity with the release of dopamine. Whether you’re using drugs, drinking, gambling, or something else, the connection gets stronger every time you do it.
Over time, your brain adjusts. It becomes less sensitive to dopamine flooding your system. As your tolerance goes up, you’ll need a higher dose just to feel the same effect. This cycle disrupts your brain’s natural reward system.1 Since your brain is producing less dopamine on its own, activities you used to enjoy won’t be as satisfying. Only your addiction will provide the dopamine boost your brain craves.
It usually takes up to 14 months for the brain to rewire from addiction.2 But there’s no one-size-fits-all timeline for recovery. Certain factors impact the speed of this process:
With these variables in play, it can take your brain anywhere from weeks to months to heal from addiction. For some people, it takes even longer. And it’s nearly impossible to predict your exact timeline in advance.
At any pace, you’ll probably progress through certain stages on your way to recovery. You may need different types of support during each phase.
When you first stop using drugs or alcohol, your body will enter withdrawal. You may experience physical and emotional symptoms during this process. For most people, this is an uncomfortable time.
Drug cravings might not end when you complete withdrawal. But once your body starts to heal, they may feel less urgent. In this stage, you’ll have the space you need to focus on your mental health
Longer-term treatment, like rehab or ongoing therapy, lets you dig into the root cause of your addiction. You’ll identify your triggers and learn to respond without drinking or using drugs. For most people, this active stage of rewiring the brain can take up to a year.7
Recovery is often a life-long process. Some people continue to have cravings for years after detox. They may never subside completely. But with the right support, you can develop the skills you need to navigate your triggers.
When you put in the work to rewire your brain from addiction, you leverage your brain’s adaptability. Before, your brain’s neuroplasticity fed into your addiction. Now, it can help you build routines that support recovery. While your brain may heal naturally, there are a few ways to speed up the process.
Mindfulness helps you practice awareness of the present moment, which can make using substances less reflexive. That’s because mindfulness gives you more emotional space. Instead of responding to triggers impulsively, you’ll have time to remember your coping skills.
Data shows that mindfulness can help people stop using drugs. One study found that mindfulness-based relapse prevention8 was more effective than other common treatments.
Exercise releases dopamine9 in your brain. As it travels through your reward system, it reinforces new neural pathways. In essence, this undoes some of the damage addiction causes. Exercise also promotes cell regeneration, which helps your brain heal faster.
Eating well is a big part of physical fitness. Studies link a balanced diet with ongoing sobriety and better mental health.10
Therapy is another powerful tool for rewiring your brain from addiction. Individual therapy helps you recognize your behavioral patterns, empowering you to change them.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)11 is a powerful strategy here. In this type of therapy, you’ll learn practical skills that help you respond to your triggers and cravings.
In addition to 1:1 therapy, group therapy sessions can be very helpful. Groups let you practice new coping skills and share mutual support with other people in recovery.
While certain treatments can help with addiction recovery, there’s no quick fix here. It takes time and effort to rewire your brain from addiction. Think of this process as an investment in your long-term treatment goals.
If you’re ready to find support, you can browse rehab programs for addiction.
The timeframe for rewiring the brain from addiction varies, but it typically takes up to 14 months. Factors such as the substance involved, severity of the addiction, presence of co-occurring mental health disorders, and quality of treatment influence the brain’s speed of recovery. While some progress can be made in just a few weeks, recovery is a lifelong process.
The stages of brain rewiring in recovery include withdrawal, active rewiring, and maintenance. During withdrawal, physical and emotional symptoms occur as a result of stopping substance use. Active rewiring entails addressing mental health and triggers through rehab or therapy. Maintenance is an ongoing phase in which cravings may persist, but proper support can help you navigate triggers effectively.
Mindfulness practices promote awareness of triggers and coping skills, while exercise releases dopamine and promotes brain healing. Eating a balanced diet contributes to ongoing sobriety and better mental health. Ongoing therapy can help you recognize behavioral patterns and develop practical skills for managing triggers and cravings. Rewiring the brain from addiction requires time and dedication to long-term treatment goals.
Stewart J, Badiani A. Tolerance and sensitization to the behavioral effects of drugs. Behav Pharmacol. 1993;4(4):289-312. PMID: 11224198.
“The Brain in Recovery.” Recovery Research Institute, 28 Jan. 2017, https://www.recoveryanswers.org/recovery-101/brain-in-recovery/.
Nestler EJ. The neurobiology of cocaine addiction. Sci Pract Perspect. 2005 Dec;3(1):4-10. doi: 10.1151/spp05314. PMID: 18552739; PMCID: PMC2851032.
Uhl GR, Koob GF, Cable J. The neurobiology of addiction. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2019 Sep;1451(1):5-28. doi: 10.1111/nyas.13989. Epub 2019 Jan 15. PMID: 30644552; PMCID: PMC6767400.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); Office of the Surgeon General (US). Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General's Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health [Internet]. Washington (DC): US Department of Health and Human Services; 2016 Nov. CHAPTER 2, THE NEUROBIOLOGY OF SUBSTANCE USE, MISUSE, AND ADDICTION. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK424849/
Clinical Guidelines for Withdrawal Management and Treatment of Drug Dependence in Closed Settings. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2009. 4, Withdrawal Management. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK310652/
Lewis M. Addiction and the Brain: Development, Not Disease. Neuroethics. 2017;10(1):7-18. doi: 10.1007/s12152-016-9293-4. Epub 2017 Jan 11. PMID: 28725282; PMCID: PMC5486526.
Bowen S, Witkiewitz K, Clifasefi SL, et al. Relative Efficacy of Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention, Standard Relapse Prevention, and Treatment as Usual for Substance Use Disorders: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. 2014;71(5):547–556. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.4546
Zhang, Zhilei, and Xiujuan Liu. “A Systematic Review of Exercise Intervention Program for People With Substance Use Disorder.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, vol. 13, 2022. Frontiers, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2022.817927.
Mahboub N, Rizk R, Karavetian M, de Vries N. Nutritional status and eating habits of people who use drugs and/or are undergoing treatment for recovery: a narrative review. Nutr Rev. 2021 May 12;79(6):627-635. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuaa095. PMID: 32974658; PMCID: PMC8114851.
McHugh RK, Hearon BA, Otto MW. Cognitive behavioral therapy for substance use disorders. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2010 Sep;33(3):511-25. doi: 10.1016/j.psc.2010.04.012. PMID: 20599130; PMCID: PMC2897895.
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