How to Retrain Your Brain and Mind for Alcoholism Recovery

How to Retrain Your Brain and Mind for Alcoholism Recovery

Music therapy for alcoholics

Retraining your mind for addiction recovery is no easy task.

In fact, the challenge is so daunting that it kept me stuck in addiction for years and years. It felt like I was somehow too smart for my own good, like I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to make recovery work for me.

I wanted to go to AA meetings. I wanted to dive into that mindset, to get into the group spirit of AA, to get involved in the fellowship, to find a new life in sobriety.

I wanted all of those things to happen for me, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it all happen. I couldn’t trick my brain into surrendering.

I am not sure that it is possible to be able to force your mind to surrender to your disease, to adopt a new way of living. Someone might say to the struggling alcoholic “Just surrender and let go, let go of your disease, stop fighting it, and surrender to AA, surrender to treatment, surrender to recovery. You can build a new life this way.”

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OK, well….how do you do that exactly, when your mind is geared into the thought that you just want to get drunk, you just want to get high, you just want one more. One more drink, one more drug. You can be sober later, at some distant point in the future. But right now I just really need to be medicated. Is that too much to ask?

And thus, the trap of addiction. It is so easy to put off sobriety for tomorrow. So easy to just say “screw it” and seize the moment as an opportunity to self medicate again.

So when you get clean and sober, this is a whole lot of behavior and mental conditioning that you need to break through. The old solution was to get high, to get drunk, to medicate your problems away the instant that they popped onto your radar. The new way of living has to somehow overcome all of that.

You need to retrain your brain. You need to find a new way to deal with problems, a new way to think about life. A new philosophy for living, a new attitude. A new mindset. A way to be grateful when you used to be selfish.

You need all of that and a whole lot more to succeed in recovery.

How do you retrain your mind?

Retraining your brain has to start with a foundation of complete and total surrender

Before you can really get started on retraining your mind in recovery, you have to first surrender completely to your disease of addiction.

There are at least two parts to this, and again, I don’t know if you can choose to do this. I don’t believe it can be forced.

Instead, the alcoholic has to discover the process of surrender through sheer misery. It is misery heaped upon more misery that finally forces the alcoholic to face their fears and finally recover.

So the surrender process is really two distinct parts that usually do not get broken down into this much detail. Allow me to illustrate:

Part 1 of surrender = accepting that you are alcoholic. Fully admitting and accepting your disease.
Part 2 of surrender = accepting that you need professional help and or a new way to live your life. Accepting a solution. Getting help.

Now realize that it is possible to surrender to the first part without also surrendering to the second part. If you are stuck in that zone, then guess what? You keep drinking.

I know this because I was stuck in that zone myself for a year or two. I knew that I was alcoholic and I accepted this fully. No question about it. I was a real drunk.

But I wouldn’t do anything about it. I was too scared to go to rehab, to change my life, to embrace AA, to do the work. Fear held me back.

I was miserable due to my drinking, and I knew that I was alcoholic, but I wasn’t quite miserable enough to face my fears just yet. I stayed stuck in addiction for another two years at that point. I knew I needed help, but I was too afraid to go get it.

Now you can also put this into terms of the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous. That first step talks about powerlessness and unmanageability.

So you are powerless over alcohol, and your life is unmanageable.

The first part of surrender is accepting that you are alcoholic–that you are powerless over alcohol.

The second part of surrender is accepting that your life is unmanageable, and that you cannot fix it yourself. You need help.

I was stuck halfway through that first step of AA for about two years. I knew that I had a problem, but I wasn’t willing to face my fears and go get help for the unmanageable part. I wasn’t willing to embrace rehab, long term treatment, AA meetings, sponsorship, and so on. I knew that this was the potential solution, but I was too afraid of it.

It was only after I got even more miserable, so miserable that it almost killed me in fact, that I became willing to face those fears…and finally go get the help that I needed (rehab, AA, etc.).

Retraining your brain starts with surrender. Not only to the problem, but to the solution as well. You must surrender to new ideas, ideas about how to live differently.

Start by listening to other people and their ideas. Take their advice. Listen carefully

The essence of recovery is to learn from other people.

Sure, you can read books like the big book in AA, or the NA basic text. You can read all sorts of recovery literature that was published by Hazelden.

Some of that may be helpful, but you don’t really learn the critical lessons from those books. Instead, you need living and breathing people to show you how to live in recovery.

And perhaps even more importantly than that, you need living and breathing people to talk to you and give you hope. Hope that you can live a new life in recovery, hope that happiness is even possible for you in sobriety.

I once heard a guy talk at an AA meeting while I was in detox, and it just blew me away. For whatever reason, I connected with this guy. He was telling my story. And I thought to myself “man, that is just like me. This dude has been right where I am at. And now he is sober and happy! How is that possible?”

And that is the hope that you get from connecting with real humans in recovery. You can’t really get that level of connection by reading recovery literature. Some of the stories might come close, and you might relate to them a bit, but it won’t be like listening to a real human being. If there is a justification for AA meetings, this is it. You need to sit and talk with someone who has been through your battle, who you can relate to. Someone who can give you hope.

This is part of retraining your mind. Before you can really retrain yourself, you have to know that it is possible. Possible to live sober, to be happy, to overcome your issues. You don’t necessarily get that by reading books. I think it requires human interaction to really get the full benefit of this.

They call this concept identification. You need to identify with others in recovery. You hear someone in recovery speak, and you say to yourself “here is someone who has the same problems as me, and they have overcome them. Maybe I can do it too.” That is how you identify. Without this critical step, it might be impossible to rebuild a sober life in recovery. Before you can rebuild, you have to know that it is possible, you have to have that vision, that hope for the future. And you get that vision and that hope by seeing it in another human being.

I am not necessarily pushing the meetings on anyone, but I do think in early recovery you need to connect with real human beings who are recovering themselves. This is important.

Figure out what works well for you in recovery through extensive testing and experimentation

This part is where we get into the nuts and bolts of retraining your mind.

Let’s say that you get sober at rehab, then you get out and go to AA meetings. You get a sponsor, start working through the 12 steps of AA and start taking some suggestions.

Pretty typical stuff. Nothing too exotic here. Just the basics.

Now if you do it right, nothing more than this is really required. The fundamentals of recovery work really well. Follow directions. Work the steps. Take suggestions, take advice, put it into positive action.

In doing this, you will hopefully have the willingness to follow through and get some results.

Now you may or may not like the results that you are getting when you follow advice. For example, I took some advice once to meditate every day. I gave it a fair shot, meditated for several weeks, tried many different styles, and ultimately I settled on……distance running!

Instead of meditation, I eventually found my way to distance running. Jogging outdoors. Running through the countryside. Doing this every day.

You can argue that this is not the same as meditation if you like, but I would tend to disagree. I get huge emotional benefit from jogging. It is a moving meditation for me. I compared the two directly and noticed a lot of the same benefits. In fact it was almost identical from an emotional and spiritual perspective!

So I found what worked for me. Maybe jogging is not for you, and maybe you will really enjoy seated meditation. Or maybe it will be yoga. Or Tai Chi. Whatever.

It doesn’t matter, the details are not important (at this level). What is important is that you experiment enough to find what really works for you. Because that is when the details start to matter, when you find the process that really clicks for you in your own personal life.

This is how I retrained my brain in recovery. Let’s give an overview of the process:

1) Surrender. Accept my disease. Then accept a new solution. For me, that solution was rehab, AA, and sponsorship.
2) Willingness. Take positive action. Take suggestions. Take ideas from other people in recovery and put them into motion. Test, test, test.
3) Results. See what results you get from the positive action you take. Some will be good, other things won’t be so great. Iterate and refine.
4) Your personal journey will start to shine through. You will find the process that works for you, and discover the things that really help you in recovery.
5) Continue to learn new things about yourself. Continue to explore. Never stop learning. Always refine your process, deeper understanding, more honest with yourself, and so on.

So it is about having enough humility to be in this continuous process of learning and development. If you think you are all done with understanding yourself in recovery, that is when you get in danger of relapse.

We must always be learning more about ourselves. We must always be willing to be ever more honest with ourselves, to dig deeper, to keep taking new suggestions and ideas.

This is the iterative process that leads to a better life in recovery.

And this is absolutely how you retrain your brain.

There is a saying in AA, something along the lines of “You can’t think your way into good living, but you can live your way into good thinking.” This is absolutely true! Because if you try to think your way into a new life, you will screw it all up and probably relapse. But if you get out of your own way long enough (meaning that you listen to others instead and take advice) then you can live your way into better thinking eventually.

This is evidenced by the fact (to me anyway) that I lived in long term rehab for 20 months and it completely turned my life around. I had to have that structure, I had to have people help me, I had to live my way into better thinking.

I did not just get sober one day by outsmarting my alcoholism. That is impossible I believe. Instead, I surrendered, admitted that I did not know how to live my own life, and asked for help. Then people told me how to live for 20 months while I lived in rehab! That is a lot of help. Hence, I lived my way into good thinking. I definitely did not outsmart my addiction.

Develop healthy habits that help you to maintain sobriety and keep pushing towards learning and growth

You know what training really is?


If you want to retrain your mind in sobriety, then look at your habits. Focus on your daily habits. Focus on consistency and creating really healthy habits for yourself.

If you look back at your alcoholism, it is the exact same thing. A string of bad habits that led you to a life of disaster. Addiction is really nothing more than ingrained habits that are dragging you down. In order to overcome that negativity and that bad life you simply need to change your habits from bad into good. You need to replace all of those bad habits with much more healthy habits.

If you have healthy habits and you are consistent with them then all of the other details will take care of themselves. Your life will run smoothly, as if by magic.

For example, I have certain habits in my life today that I credit with having a major impact on my sobriety. These include things such as:

1) Distance running every other day. Weights on the off days.
2) Eliminating bad habits – no alcohol, drugs, or nicotine.
3) Quality sleep habits–7 to 8 hour every single day, no exceptions. Never getting behind on sleep.
4) Eating healthy foods. Striving to improve diet (this is tough!).
5) Writing about addiction and recovery every day. Also, writing in a personal journal to sort out emotions, feelings, etc. This is very therapeutic.
6) Relationships. Eliminating toxic relationships. Cultivating healthy relationships. Always a work in progress. A huge part of recovery.
7) Spirituality – finding gratitude each day. Making gratitude lists. Saying prayers of thanks.

And I continue to try to refine my process and find other habits that will serve me better than these. I am always looking for ways to improve my process, to learn more, to live a better life. Or just to enjoy life more or be happier, connect with others in new ways, and so on.

Your priorities will shift as your mind and body become accustomed to sobriety and new rewards in life

If you are relatively new in recovery then I would give you this piece of advice:

Give it time. Relax. Just go with the flow for a while.

Things are not going to change overnight. You did not become addicted in one day, and you will not recover in one single day either. It takes time.

So learn to just go with the flow, to take your time, to relax and enjoy the process that is unfolding all around you.

When things happen, try not to label them as “good” or “bad” so much, but to realize that it is all part of the learning process.

If you can extract a valuable lesson from something “bad” that happens, then you have unlocked a key piece of gratitude. If you can find the silver lining in things, and you make a habit of doing so, then this can be the difference between happiness and misery. It can be the difference between sobriety and relapse.

People used to say to me in recovery: “Give yourself a break.”

I never knew what that really meant. Here is what it means.

It means that you don’t have to beat yourself up or feel bad if you are currently struggling in recovery. It means that probably are, in fact, “right where you need to be in your journey.” I used to hate hearing that line, that I was supposedly “right where I needed to be!” People would tell me that when I was struggling, and I would want to punch the walls.

But then later, looking back, I had to agree with them.

Every single time.

That yes, every time I was struggling in my journey, it was for a very good reason. Every time I was miserable or depressed or afraid, it was because I had an amazing lesson that I had to learn, and my higher power was teaching me the only way that he knew how. The only way that I was ever going to get it.

Sometimes I like to learn things the hard way. OK, most of the time I like to learn things the hard way. And so the universe has learned to serve me reality in a certain way, so that I can learn the things that I need to learn about myself.

And this, my friends, has made for an amazing journey.

And it is only in looking back that I can see, and I can understand. I had to go through what I went through in order to get to where I am at now.

I had to suffer a bit to be able to appreciate the amazing life that I have today.

I am grateful that I was able to learn, able to be taught. That I was humble enough to finally get it, to surrender to a new life, to become teachable.

Have you surrendered to a new solution? Are you willing to be taught in order to escape a life of misery? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!

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