People, places and things; that’s the common motto among individuals in recovery when discussing relapse triggers. While this may seem like a broad and generalized phrase, it specifically refers to the role of their environment in addiction recovery and the atmospheric factors that make it hard for them to sustain their sobriety. A recent study from Ontario’s University of Guelph offers the latest clinical insights into just how much the places in which we live, the people with whom we interact and the things we choose to do and think about can influence our ongoing recovery, and how the past can make it hard to cultivate a healthier future.
The Way We Were: The Role of Memories in Triggering Relapse
The study specifically discusses the neurological barriers to lasting recovery created by the brain’s memory-processing systems, claiming that environmental factors associated with past drug use can create powerful memories that compound the difficulty of treatment and subsequent successful recovery. In other words, when a person engages even passively with locations in which they used to use drugs, see drug paraphernalia, interact with the people with whom they used to use or from whom they used to buy, it can create a legitimate memory-based neurological imprint that leads to the compulsion to relapse. “Prompting these memory processing systems of the brain makes it extra difficult to counter addiction,” said psychology professor and study co-author Francesco Leri.
The Not-So-Little Things
When we think about the role of environment in addiction recovery, we often think about the families to whom we’re returning, the jobs we’re fighting to keep, the relationships that we have to repair, etc. These are everyday social and behavioral paradigms in which we must deeply immerse ourselves during recovery, so it’s natural for us to stumble a bit while trying to maneuver within them. Many of us also know (and this study reinforces) however, that even the seemingly least consequential memories can inhibit long-term recovery. Leri goes on to say that addiction can weaponize seemingly benign memory associations, like those with buildings, places and objects to rigger relapse; those in recovery who have been hit with powerful memories associated with their own experiences know exactly what he means.
What Can We Take Away?
Researchers are hoping their findings can better inform treatment protocols related to the role of environment in addiction recovery, including creating more intuitive cognitive behavioral therapy approaches and developing new modalities that specifically address memory and past experience. Overcoming these memories and learning to put them in correct context can drastically improve treatment outcomes. Recovery Unplugged uses music as a means to help patients effectively process and contextualize potentially toxic memories through the creation and performance of music, as well as other therapies. By understanding the role that environment plays in addiction recovery and treatment, it may be possible to cultivate care practices and general atmosphere during the rehab process to give those affected a better shot at lasting success.