The Healing Ability of Gratitude

An addict can come to The Refuge and spend months, maybe  even years,  and do every assignment, attend every group and  process their past trauma  until their lips fall off, but they will  still need to work hard at their recovery  every day, starting the  moment they leave our property. In my experience, it  seems  that once a person changes the wiring of their brain and  makes that  connection between an addictive behavior as a survival skill, there is often no  going back. What The Refuge does is help to remove the heavy emotional and  mental chains that our clients have been carrying their entire lives but it is up to them to keep them off!

I’ve heard many addicts, who having been through treatment (sometimes several times), tell me that they tried employing therapeutic strategies to self-care after a relapse, or while using. Often this was because they came to a hopeful conclusion, usually on their own, that their unresolved issues were the problem, not the addiction. Perhaps now that they have excavated their insides, done some healing work and been given some tools, they could drink and use drugs like ladies and gentlemen. Not surprisingly, however, yoga doesn’t quite seem to have the same positive results when you’re high on cocaine, and providing that inner-child the love and support they need while constantly visiting massage parlors and porn sites is not easy. It’s really hard to stay awake while practicing mindfulness on OxyContin and, well, being authentic and maintaining genuine relationships while drinking whiskey all day is quite difficult. We have to do something to protect our recovery on a daily basis so that we may continue to heal and grow.

Honestly, I don’t really care what my clients do to maintain their recovery if it works and they are happy and usefully whole as a result! However, they must do SOMETHING! You cannot take a behavior that you have been using, usually daily, as your greatest coping skill, your go-to pain reliever and numbing agent, your greatest lover/friend/protector, and not replace it with something. And that something better have some teeth!
Often times people are told to attend 12-step recovery and many are very resistant. I am often told by clients and sometimes family, “where’s the evidence? It sounds like a cult to me!” There will never be a comprehensive research study done within 12-step groups about efficacy because it goes against the traditions and structure of the group. However, this does not mean there isn’t a ton of pretty amazing evidence behind why it works!

I was presenting at a conference not long ago and I was listening to a presenter named Ralph Carson, a doctor specializing in the connection between the brain, behavior and health. He talked about how we essentially have what he called “happiness-cells” in the pre-frontal cortex of our brains. The more of these cells you have, the happier you are! In the 1970’s and 1980’s, we did not have the understanding of the brain that we have now, so we did not believe creating new happiness cells was possible. Thus, our best advice to someone with depression was to hold on and fight because it was simply going to be a grueling battle. Not very encouraging, but I have some really good news: What science tells us today is that we CAN create new happiness-cells and one of the prime ways to do so rests in our attitudes.

Ever wonder why there’s so many of those, “damn gratitude meetings”, the ones that often    make you cringe because it’s harder to maintain your pessimistic approach on life. Research      shows that gratitude, which can directly improve our attitude, is one of the most powerful ways  we can create new happiness-cells in the brain (I realize AA was founded long before this  research, but perhaps the topic of gratitude became so popular because people simply feel  better afterwards… Remember, just smiling can trigger the brain to release a shot of dopamine!)

In early sobriety we often feel depressed, dysphoric and the truth is, our brains are usually lacking neurotransmitters needed to regulate mood because of all the foreign chemicals we flooded ourselves with. This is why it is so critical that we have our reality checked daily, hourly or minute-by-minute. It takes time for our brain to heal, and unfortunately, time is often the one thing early recovering people do not give themselves! Instead, they determine that after 20, 30 or 40-days  that they don’t feel better (even though they have been using for 5, 10 or 20-years), that this recovery business just doesn’t work for them (insert the, “I knew it”, or “I told you so” comments), and they may as well go back to drinking/using/acting out addictively. So if you’re wondering why meetings are often so annoyingly positive and upbeat, it’s because there’s often not much time, and hearing positive messages while making positive change, even slowly, can literally re-wire the brain and help an individual to heal.

The truth is, just the act of walking into a meeting begins the process of healing as engaging in positive relationships promote the production of happiness cells. Additionally, the 12th step, what many believe to be the heart and soul of “the program” via giving away what was so freely given to you, is a major part of this healing process as well: Altruistic behavior is also directly linked to the reproduction of these critical cells. I used to hear a saying early on in my own journey: “To build your esteem, you need to do esteem-able acts.” This is actually very true, and it’s not just about sponsorship or being the person at the front of the room leading the meeting, as making coffee, greeting a newcomer, buying someone a big book, cleaning up or just sharing your truth are all examples of the types of altruistic opportunities available to every member of a 12-step recovery program on a daily basis. Simple actions that can lead to major results!

This article is not meant to convince anyone that 12-step recovery is the right choice, a guaranteed fix or better than other approaches. There are indeed other options and I think people should have the freedom to explore and choose which path to take. The market is not cornered and never should be as far as saving our own lives is concerned. If it works for you, DO IT! But again, do something, and don’t let the lack of research articles or fancy hospital endorsements scare you away. That may be part of the magic.



Carson, R. (Director) (2015, May 2). The Healing Brain: Integrating 12-Steps, Positive Psychology, and Neurochemistry into a Model for Recovery. 2nd National Conference on Trauma, Addictions & Intimacy Disorders. US Journal Conference. Lecture conducted from , Nashville.