The roots and paths of addiction are complex, adaptive, and surprising. Those seeking recovery often find themselves exploring and coming to terms with underlying mental health challenges, traumas, developmental issues, disabilities, and a wide range of related themes. It’s straightforward to think of recovery as an act of stopping — stopping using, stopping unhealthy lifestyles and behaviors — but recovery is just as much an act of starting, of reaching toward pathways of belonging, trust, and safety. And as we grapple with these underlying themes and possibilities, it becomes clear that successful recovery must involve the engagement and development of core skills in the body and the mind. Self-regulation, mindfulness, self-awareness, empathy, and the broad suite of capacities that we call character — these become foundational aspects of the healing process as we open ourselves to them.

Recent developments in the research of trauma, mental health challenges, chronic pain, and disability have shown that grappling with these challenges is most effective when we utilize psychological methods (the cultivation of self-awareness, insight, and empathy, for example) alongside the intentional practice of physical skills focused on mindful movement. Exercise practices, sport, strength training, and experiences in nature have all been shown to kick-start and dramatically improve resilience and neuroplasticity, which in turn is a signal of deep healing. When we work with the body we also change the brain and the nervous system; and when these all change together, lasting healing is the result.

The approaches of neuroplasticity have been widely adopted within the fields of mental health, trauma, chronic pain, and disability. And yet, despite the fact that addictions share the same developmental landscape as these issues, addictions recovery programs have not yet embraced these practices in a broad way. In this presentation I explore how this situation has evolved, what we might do about it, and how we might start.