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What happens to our bodies in recovery?
By Diane Cameron
We know a lot more now about the brain and addiction. We’ve seen those PET scans that show an addict’s brain on drugs. They are not so different than the public service announcements we saw years ago that were meant to scare us away from drugs: “This is your brain on drugs” and the TV visual was an egg scrambled scrambled in a frying pan.
We know that detox is about the brain and the body. And we get calmer as years of recovery tick by. Part of the getting calmer is from making better choices; putting ourselves in better situations; not around people that we want to fight with; we are sleeping and eating and exercising. And our brains get better.
But what else?
Recently I participated in a workshop with Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.—Director of The Trauma Center in Boston. Bessel is considered one of the top experts on trauma. He talked a lot about what happens to soldiers of course, and what happens to people that experience terrible sexual traumas or who are in horrific accidents. Those folks come to him for help.
But he also talked about the relationship between trauma and addiction. We’ve known that intuitively, of course, and some recovery literature touches on that linkage. In Adult Children work we talk about trauma, and we process those memories with lots of talking and sharing. But van der Kolk also said that we need to change the body to significantly change the brain: “Calm the body to calm the brain.”
That helped me to understand why I can’t always talk myself out of my feelings, and why it’s frustrating and ineffectual when someone says, “You don’t need to feel that way” when I am mad or sad or scared. We can’t get at thoughts with other thoughts—we need to go through the body.
What trauma experts like Bessel van der Kolk recommend are breathing, yoga, walking, stretching, dancing (not any formal kind of dance but mostly moving around to some music)—all kinds of movement. Now, it’s been studied and documented: Changing the body can change the brain.
Doesn’t that make you smile? It’s one of AA’s oldest slogans: Move a Muscle Change a Thought.

Diane Cameron is the author of OUT OF THE WOODS