Rewiring Your Brain After Addiction: What's Going On and How Long Does it Take?

By Xavier Francuski

In the past, stopping an addiction was done doing everything from arbitrary detention to electroshock therapy to questionable pharmaceutical interventions. After many years battling this condition, we’ve learned enough to say that compassion, support, and intentional mind expansion work better than forceful means ever could.

Just as addiction is a complex disorder involving neurological, psychological, and behavioral changes, so is the path to addiction recovery. It’s a multifaceted journey that requires a good strategy, resilience, and profound lifestyle changes to combat how addiction affects the brain. 

The good news? It is absolutely possible to recover from most forms of dependence. How long it takes to rewire your brain from addiction depends solely on how much and in what ways you invest yourself in the process.

In this article, we share what we’ve found about addictive disorders and what exactly is going on in the brain. You will learn ways to overcome an addiction, support your brain in the rewiring process, and achieve long-lasting transformation.

Dependence vs Addiction: What’s the Difference?

Before diving deeper into addiction and how it affects the brain, let’s first look at how it’s different from another term it’s related to: dependence.


Dependence typically refers to the physiological reliance built up as a result of abusing a psychoactive substance. 

With the altered neurochemistry, the brain adapts to the higher dopamine levels and starts needing the substance to function normally. Eventually, a tolerance is formed and the previous baselines are not enough. 

The brain starts needing higher dopamine levels or, in practical terms, higher doses of the substance. Without this, the brain sends out panic signals that drive the user to get the substance or they will start feeling more pain and discomfort.

This is known as substance withdrawal. How long the symptoms last and how severe they are depends on: 

  • How long someone has been dependent
  • How potent the dependent substance is
  • How frequently it's been ingested and in what amounts
  • Was it ingested with other substances
  • Personal factors such as age and metabolism


Addiction is when the brain’s goal is to acquire the substance while avoiding withdrawal. 

Dependence and addiction can appear independently. However, in many cases, dependence is usually the source of the addictive behavior when a psychoactive substance is involved.

Substances are not the only way addictive behaviors can develop. For example, pleasure or risk-seeking activities can rewire the brain to seek out the dopamine boost from those experiences. Any potential risks and consequences are a secondary thought.

“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”

– Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald


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What Types of Addiction Exist?

Any behavior where the user struggles to resist cravings for something can be considered an addiction. There are two main types of addiction: chemical addictions and behavioral addictions.

Chemical Addictions

Chemical addictions come from a direct physical dependence on a substance. Yet, as we mentioned earlier, someone doesn’t need to be addicted to a substance to be dependent on it.

The idea of an addiction carries a negative stigma so this is an important distinction. This has been harmful to the diagnosis and treatment of those who genuinely suffer from addictive disorders.

For example, people who have the urge to drink several cups of coffee to get through each day have likely developed a caffeine dependence—their bodies need the stimulant to function “normally”. However, many people don’t have a caffeine addiction. As in, they do not constantly crave a cup of coffee and they wouldn’t do anything dangerous or irrational to satisfy this dependence. Cannabis dependence can work similarly.

On the other hand, dependence on nicotine or alcohol—two of the other most widely consumed legal substances—is more likely to become an addiction. While their connection to illness and death is well known, abusing them has been normalized in society since any internal damage typically takes decades to develop.

When it comes to substances with short-term consequences, that’s when society starts to take notice of the addiction epidemic. This includes substances such as:

  • Potent CNS stimulants like cocaine and its derivative, crack cocaine
  • Inhalants like glue, paint thinner, gasoline, and nitrous oxide
  • Amphetamines like Adderall, speed, or crystal meth
  • CNS depressants like benzodiazepines or barbiturates
  • Opioids like oxycodone, codeine, morphine, heroin, and fentanyl

Behavioral Addictions

Behavioral addictions are harder to identify compared to chemical addictions. There’s a blurred line between habits or passions and a genuine compulsive behavior. Plus, the lack of a substance that can be attributed to a change in brain chemistry makes this a challenge.

However, it’s becoming more clear that being unable to stop dopamine-increasing can be considered an addictive behavior. This includes activities like shopping, sex, social media, TV, eating, exercising, or extreme sports.

The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR) has classified two common reward-seeking pastimes as a behavioral addiction: gambling and online gaming.

Signs of Addiction to Look Out For

Addictions can be hard to recognize because their onset is gradual. Yet, knowing the signs to keep an eye out for can be crucial for getting early intervention and support.

Some of the most common signs of addiction are:

  • Changes in mood, personality, or habits, including irritability, apathy, mood swings, withdrawal from social activities, and neglecting responsibilities.
  • Secrecy and deception around hiding and maintaining the addictive substance use or activity.
  • Consistent concern over obtaining or recovering from the substance use or activity.
  • Risk-taking behaviors to obtain the substance or continue the activity, such as stealing or driving under the influence.
  • Financial issues, including sudden, unexplained or confusing requests to borrow money.
  • Relationship issues with family, friends, partners, or colleagues.
  • Physical symptoms such as weight loss, glassy or bloodshot eyes, sluggishness, nausea, insomnia, or a deterioration in personal hygiene and clothing cleanliness.

What Does Addiction Do To The Brain?

“At first, addiction is maintained by pleasure, but the intensity of this pleasure gradually diminishes and the addiction is then maintained by the avoidance of pain.”

– Frank Tallis

What makes the many different types of addiction similar is their profound impact on both the brain's chemistry and its structure.


Invading the Brain’s Reward System 

The root of all addictive disorders lies in the need for consistent dopamine boosts, the biochemical messenger of pleasure. This plays a key role in regulating our motivation, mood, attention, and memory.

When engaging in a satisfying activity or consuming a psychoactive substance, dopamine is released into the nucelus accumbens (NAc), the brain’s pleasure center. Occasional dopamine releases are a normal and essential part of the neural reward system; however, if this release becomes consistent, the brain develops a tolerance to them.

This is the same for both substance consumption and pleasurable activities. However, it’s an especially slippery slope when it comes to substances since they can increase dopamine levels far more than natural. The more a user’s brain begins to rely on the dopamine release of a substance, the more they will seek it out. 

Over time, it becomes less about “liking” the drug and more about “wanting” it. Users will need higher doses to get the same experience. On top of that, they will start to associate environmental cues with the experience, leading to more triggers that make the cravings more frequent.

Weakening of Executive Functions

Once addiction takes over the brain, the physiological impairments can be observed in cerebral fMRI recordings.

The regions of the brain most severely affected are the basal ganglia, extended amygdala, and prefrontal cortex. These play critical roles in motivation, emotional regulation, judgment, and decision-making. 

One of the most damaging elements is the decreased neurometabolism in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the part of the brain in charge of higher cognitive (executive) functions. The PFC enables us to process inputs from our environment and determine how to react to them. Its deterioration is likely why those with substance use disorders struggle to control their impulses related to their urges.

Meanwhile, the basal ganglia gets used to the regular dopamine boosts. This is where the brain’s "reward center" is housed, perpetuating the cycle of craving and consumption.

Finally, the extended amygdala, which is responsible for processing emotions and stress, undergoes dysregulation. This contributes to higher anxiety and negative withdrawal effects, thought to be partly mediated by post-high serotonergic depletion.

These neurobiological rewirings show us the difficult challenge anyone trying to recover from addictions face.

Rewiring Your Brain From Addiction3

How Long Does it Take for the Brain to Rewire From Addiction?

Even though the neurological impact of addiction can be immense, our brains are truly remarkable at rewiring themselves when abstaining from the addictive substance or activity. 

The recovery period can vary based on a number of factors such as:

  • The type of substance(s) abused
  • The duration of addiction and damage caused
  • Individual differences in neuroplasticity
  • Genetic proneness to addictive behavior
  • Co-occurring mental health disorders
  • Environmental influences and exposure to triggers
  • Treatments, interventions, and therapy received
  • Willpower and strength of support network


That said, there is research available around some of the most commonly used substances to suggest how long it takes to rewire brain from addiction:

  • Alcohol — The cognition of 66% of alcoholics was found to return to normal within 18 days after discontinuing drinking. Another study reported complete brain volume recovery in six affected areas within seven months of abstinence.
  • Cannabis — The functioning of the hippocampus,  responsible for memory, of regular cannabis users was found to return to normal after an average of 29 months.
  • Cocaine — The frontal cortex activity of regular cocaine users, responsible for higher cognitive functioning, was found to improve slightly within one to five weeks of abstinence, and significantly after 10 to 25 weeks of abstinence.
  • Crystal meth — Microglial activation, a sign of neural cell pathology, and the dopamine transporter levels (DAT) in the basal ganglia have been found to return to normal levels after 14 to 24 months of abstinence.
  • Heroin — A series of longitudinal studies reported partial to full recovery in a variety of brain regions within eight months of abstaining from heroin (1, 2, 3, 4).
    • These timelines should only be looked at as estimates. Addiction is a complex disorder that impacts each person in a unique way and the path to recovery is rarely linear. There may be setbacks and relapses.

      With perseverance, support from healthcare professionals, and a solid treatment plan, people with a substance use disorder can significantly improve their brain function and overall well-being in the weeks or months after stopping their addiction. A treatment plan may include detoxification, psychotherapy, rehabilitation, cultivating mindfulness, and/or participating in wellness retreats.


What Can You Do to Help Your Brain Rewire From Addiction?

Sometimes, abstaining from a substance or activity alone isn’t enough. Taking proactive steps can help overcome an addiction for long-lasting recovery.

Powering Through Withdrawal

Depending on how strong someone’s dependence is, the withdrawal itself may need a lot of willpower to get through. The most intense symptoms can come with many forms of physical and mental pain, on top of intense cravings.

While the worst symptoms typically only last a few days, this can feel like an eternity to the suffering mind. However, this is precisely when the brain is rewiring itself in the most vital way—getting reacclimated to the lack of dopamine.

It’s during this phase, depending on how powerful the psychoactive substance is, that a person will do anything to get it and end the agony. Additionally, dangerous or even life-threatening withdrawal symptoms are possible in case of alcohol, barbiturate, and/or benzodiazepine addiction withdrawals. These symptoms include fever, hallucinations, seizures, acute psychosis, and coma.

This is why the best way to rewire the brain from addiction in the withdrawal phase is not to do it alone. Preferably, have professional caregivers present to monitor and intervene when needed.

Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome

The subsiding of the withdrawal symptoms can be a long phase of the recovery process, during which a variety of symptoms may be experienced. These include:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Social dysfunction
  • Fatigue, cravings, and brain fog 
  • Hypersensitivity or numbness
    Challenges with sleep, memory, attention, and motivation

These symptoms are known as post-acute-withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). Many of them can appear intermittently for weeks, months, or even more than a year after the substance use. 

They can be triggered by stress or manifest without an apparent cause.

These symptoms typically self-resolve within one to two years of abstinence. Their severity and frequency reduce over time without consumption.

During this period, and especially right after the initial withdrawal symptoms subside, supporting the brain's rewiring process requires a holistic approach that encompasses physical, emotional, behavioral, and social changes

Rewiring Your Brain From Addiction4


Regular exercise enhances neurogenesis and synaptic plasticity, building new neural connections.

In particular, aerobic exercise releases endorphins along with other neurotransmitters that help with mood regulation and stress reduction. These can be immensely helpful in managing PAWS symptoms.


Mindfulness practices such as meditation, yoga, breathwork, journaling, and spending time in nature can help the brain rewire from addiction. By focusing on organic, creative, and inherently rewarding processes or activities, mindfulness techniques can help navigate triggers and urges more effectively. 

Cultivating more self-awareness, calmness, passion, and emotional fortitude will empower those on the path to recovery by redirecting their attention from cravings and intrusive thoughts.


Maintaining a balanced, nutrient-rich diet is essential to help the brain rewire from addiction while maintaining health and resilience during recovery. 

Foods high in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins B and D can help mitigate inflammation and oxidative stress, common symptoms from substance abuse.

For many people, their reason for turning to alcohol or drugs may come from early abusive or traumatic experiences. Addiction psychotherapy can be very helpful in exploring these often repressed aspects of one’s personality while acquiring valuable techniques to deal with them.

Specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be a great treatment for drug and alcohol use disorders. It helps patients be more aware of how their thoughts, feelings, and actions are connected and how these connections can impact their recovery.


Establishing a solid support network of friends, family, and recovering peers can be a valuable source of encouragement and accountability as you heal and your brain rewires.

Peer support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous offer a safe and inclusive space to share experiences, gain perspective, and receive guidance from others on a similar journey.

Finally, participating in retreats such as meditation, yoga, wellness, or plant medicine can also help with recovery by connecting with like-minded individuals while learning more self-care practices.


Can Psychedelics Help With Addiction?

Psychedelics have been growing in popularity for their potential therapeutic benefits. Some of their most notable strengths being their ability to help with addiction and rewiring the brain.

Studies have shown promising results for psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD, and ayahuasca in addressing various forms of addiction such as alcoholism, nicotine dependence, and substance use disorders.

Psilocybin is the active compound found in psychedelic mushrooms. It has shown it’s ability to catalyse profound and transformative experiences that can reduce cravings, enhance introspection and self-awareness, and increase motivation for change. Psilocybin retreats are among the most popular for plant medicine seekers. 

Ayahuasca is a brew traditionally used in indigenous Amazonian shamanism. It contains psychoactive harmala alkaloids and the psychedelic compound DMT. Research suggests that ayahuasca ceremonies and retreats that are conducted in a safe, supportive, and nurturing environment can facilitate profound spiritual experiences and insights. Users can enhance emotional processing, increase psychological resilience, and reduce addictive behaviors.

LSD, mescaline, and ibogaine have also shown promise in breaking addictive patterns and promoting long-term abstinence. 

Finally, ketamine has demonstrated effectiveness in interrupting various substance addictions, too. While it’s technically a dissociative drug with hallucinogenic effects and not a true psychedelic, the benefits for users can be immense.

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How to Take Psychedelics for Addiction?

Even with the promising studies and research for psychedelics, it’s important to make sure retreat settings are properly vetted or they are only done with a trained professional. Psychedelic-assisted therapy is one common approach which typically has a structured strategy with preparation, guided psychedelic sessions, and integration psychotherapy. 

However, the benefits of psychedelics can also be experienced through plant medicine and psychedelic retreats. Many people have said they achieved breakthroughs in a single session or a few ceremonies that would have needed months of therapy to get to.

Many psychedelic retreat centers go above and beyond to ensure safety and effectiveness for their participants. They will offer medical pre-screenings, extensive preparation guidelines, experienced facilitators, verified substances, medical staff on hand to assist with emergencies, and post-ceremony integration support.

Here at Retreat Guru, we are proud to host the world’s largest database of psychedelic, plant medicine, and mindfulness retreats. Wherever you are in the world, Retreat Guru will be able to help you find the perfect place to begin your journey of healing, transformation, and growth.

Tags: Addiction

Posted by Xavier Francuski

Born in Asia, grew up in Europe, lived and roamed around the world, Xavier's uprooted existence fuels his instinct for exploration. With a background in research psychology and a passion for sharing insight, he tries to reconcile the astounding nature of the realms beyond with what sense we can make of them in this one. Apart from working in psychedelic education, he is an avid photographer striving to capture the quaint beauty of our planet and its inhabitants.



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