Change Your Brain or Choose Your Addiction: Preventing Relapse

You have an amazing brain. There are more than 100 billion neurons, more than a trillion supporting cells, and thousands of connections between each of those cells. A piece of brain tissue the size of a grain of sand contains 100,000 neurons and 1 billion synapses that are all talking to each other. There are more connections than stars in the universe. The way your Higher Power made your brain is that the universe within is greater than the universe out there when you are gazing at the stars tonight.

Just a slight imbalance in that beautiful brain of yours, though, can cause your everyday world to be quite a struggle. Today I want to focus on one system of the brain, which to me is the most neglected region of the brain in all of addictionology, psychiatry, general medicine and psychology: the basal ganglia. Over the past 19 years, my colleagues and I have made close to 4000 referrals for SPECT (single photon emission computerized tomography) brain imaging. This amazing technology allows us to literally take a "snapshot" of the brain, and this picture then allows us to target the supplements or medications that will help balance brain chemistry. Below is an example of a SPECT scan and the left and right basal ganglia (i.e., the anxiety thermostat of the brain) looks like "eyes" on a SPECT scan.


(overactive basal ganglia)


(normal basal ganglia)

As you can see, in the scan on the left, the "eyes" are lit up, which means the person is struggling with anxiety. On the left scan do you see what looks like a mark in the "forehead" ? That is the anterior cingulate or the "gear shifter" of the brain. When that part of the brain is overactive, thoughts of using, fear, worry, negative thoughts about yourself, hurts and resentments will be turning over and over and over. When the basal ganglia is overactive, then the cingulate, or gear shifter, will get stuck.

The scan on the right shows normal, or no overactivity, in the basal ganglia. If a person struggling with anxiety is scanned after having a few drinks or smoking weed, that person's scan will show the basal ganglia being calmed. How do you know if your basal ganglia is overactive? Read the following checklist, (also found in my book This is Your Brain on Joy, where there is an entire chapter on the different systems of the brain. The following is a partial list of the questions that has to do with the basal ganglia.

Rate yourself either very frequently (4), frequently (3), occasionally (2), rarely (1), or never (0).

1. ___ Frequent feelings of nervousness or anxiety

2. ___ Panic attacks

3. ___ Neck, shoulder tension, headaches, migraines, GI symptoms

4. ___ Tendency to predict the worst

5. ___ Fear of dying or doing something crazy

6. ___ Fears or phobias

7. ___ Avoid places for fear of having anxiety or panic

8. ___ Excessive fear of being judged or criticized by others

9. ___ Avoidance (i.e., avoiding conflict, avoiding paying bills, your sponsor, meetings, difficult to sit in a meeting room due to anxiety, etc.)

10. ___ Tendency to freeze in anxiety provoking situations, do not know what to say or do

11. ___Easily embarrassed

12. ___ Lack confidence in abilities

Now add up the "very frequently" and "frequently" answers. A score of four or less is normal. If you scored five or more, do the following:

1. When anxiety is this high, there is the potential of relapse. Call your sponsor or another member of the program and get to a meeting. This does not matter if you are an addict/alcoholic, or codependent. Take action and use the tools of your program to do whatever it takes to stay sober.

2. If you are on medication, there is a high likelihood that the medication could be causing anxiety to go up. Take this checklist to your prescribing doctor or therapist so they know the specific symptoms you are struggling with. This might help them change your medication or supplement protocol.

3. Remove energy drinks, caffeine and other stimulating drinks. If you need the energy drinks to "wake up" your brain, then there may need to be a medication, supplement or nutritional change that needs to happen.

4. If you are in your forties or older, whether you are male or female, have your doc run a hormone panel. Thyroid should be done at any age. If the sex hormones such as testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen are off, this can result in higher anxiety, less motivation and increased depression. Vitamin D is considered a hormone. Find out your Vitamin D blood level.

5. Practice yoga, meditation, and increase your exercise.

6. Learn about your brain. My books, This is Your Brain on Joy and This is Your Brain in Love are excellent resources that will educate you as to strategies, medications and supplements that will help balance your brain. See a "brain friendly" doctor or therapist, one who is trained in evaluating what your brain needs or if your medications and/or supplements are effective.

Dr. Earl Henslin, a practicing psychotherapist author and co-author of 10 books, helps individuals and families by integrating the latest in neuroscience to help those who struggle with traumatic stress, addictions, abuse, and other issues. Send him a tweet at @drhenslin

SPECT scans courtesy of Daniel Amen, MD

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