The Neuroscience of Sleep: Strengthening the Brain to Resist Relapse


Last night, as I sat comfortably on my couch, watching an informational video on my laptop, my experience was abruptly interrupted by my computer’s loss of power. I shrugged it off as an excuse to go to bed but in the morning, I was surprised to find my computer cord on the floor, within arms reach from where I sat the previous evening. What a pristine picture of how many of us move through life. We crawl through our days feeling as though we’re “running on empty”, while one of our most powerful sources of strength is within our reach. This simple practice that exponentially improves our lives in both quality and duration and without which we experience unprecedented suffering is something all humans require….sleep!

Sleep is a necessity for everyone, including those in recovery from addiction. In fact, successful recovery and practicing healthy sleep habits are inseparable. Sleep has a potent effect on the addicted brain, proving to be one of the most influential factors in successful recovery.

Dr Ralph Carson, author of The Brain Fix, describes why “proper sleep is crucial while recovering from addiction” (p 214). He explains that for addicts in an “intense treatment program, it’s paramount that individuals be prepared to accept new concepts, embrace a different lifestyle, and apply their creativity to this challenge. The effectiveness of treatment is most certainly compromised in people who aren’t getting quality sleep and thus don’t wake up feeling refreshed, responsive, positive, and committed to the hard work of recovery.”

So, how does sleep specifically benefit the brain? There are many ways. One that’s described in the above video, is how “sleep promotes the removal of neural waste from the brain”, which may protect against “dirty brain diseases like Alzheimer’s”. Sleep also provides the brain the opportunity to organize information that it has learned (Carson).

Of special interest to those in recovery, sleep impacts the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. In two previous LifeSTAR articles, the science was explained about how addiction negatively affects the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, leading to many problems, including “compulsivity, impulsivity, and impaired judgment”. Thus, strengthening this part of the brain is an essential part of the recovery process.

In her talk at Google, Dr Kelly McGonigal explained how sleep deprivation effects the brain, showing images of its impact. She described how sleep deprivation inhibits the pre-frontal cortex’s ability to work efficiently, making it more difficult to “remember who you are and what your big goals are”. She talked about a study where addicts increased the duration of their sleep and experienced an improved ability to “resist relapse”. Increased sleep made their brains “better fueled to remember their goals to remain clean and sober”, boosting willpower. What a significant finding!

Dr Ralph Carson echoes this research, writing about additional impacts of having a pre-frontal cortex that is “shut down” due to poor sleep. He explains: “This can cause you to overreact to negative experiences. Instead of facing your problems like a well-reasoned adult, you’ll be more apt to act moody, inpatient, or irritable” (p 210, click here for a study with similar findings). For those in recovery, these negative mood states can be extremely triggering, increasing the likelihood of relapsing.

Take some time and think about your personal sleep habits. Sleep deprivation clearly effects all of us mentally, physically, emotionally, relationally, and even neurologically. For those facing challenges that require sustained willpower, sleep is essential. Thus, implementing consistent, quality sleep practices proves to be a necessary component of a successful recovery plan.

For tips on how to improve sleep or add napping into daily living, see the following infographics:

Click here to learn about another “willpower miracle” – EXERCISE

Click here to learn about the connection between NUTRITION and addiction

For readers interested in a Christian call to self-care, click here

*If you found this article helpful, please “FOLLOW” our blog and SHARE the link with others who would benefit. Thanks!

-Written by Forest Benedict, MA, SATP-C, LifeSTAR of the Central Valley

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About fbenedict

Forest Benedict is the author of Life After Lust: Stories & Strategies for Sex & Pornography Addiction Recovery. He is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and certified Sexual Addiction Treatment Provider (SATP). Forest loves the work he does as the Clinical Director of LifeSTAR of the Central Valley and the Program Manager/Teacher in the SATP program at Mid-America Nazarene University. He writes numerous articles on the LifeSTAR of the Central Valley blog (https://lifestarcentralvalley.wordpress.com/) and also on his personal blog (http://forestbenedict.com/). He created the Life After Lust VLOG on Youtube, sharing insights about recovery from sexual addiction. Forest also writes and speaks publicly about protecting children from pornography.
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12 Responses to The Neuroscience of Sleep: Strengthening the Brain to Resist Relapse

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