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Learning self-mastery on the road to recovery

Self-conquest is far more noble than the conquest of others, and for some more difficult. Human beings are blessed with free will, or volition. But because humans are also social creatures, their free will is moderated by their relationships with others — past and present. For example, a man may feel like sleeping late and watching sports all day, but instead, he exercises then goes to work because he wants to remain healthy and provide for his family.

Behavioral disorders can be disruptive, antisocial or simply may interfere with the ability to achieve one’s full potential. Some examples include drug or alcohol use, as well as other addictions, such as gambling, sex addiction, cutting, shopping, anorexia, bulimia, excessive Internet use, video games, excessive exercise and so on.

Forming healthy neural pathways

Sometimes, the desire to behave a certain way conflicts with the actual behavior that occurs. In such cases, relationships and social context do not seem to moderate behavior at all. Research on patients with behavioral problems, such as eating disorders, has shown that changes in neural pathways affect sense of reward, decision-making and social behavior. These changes can be treated through seemingly unrelated means that lead to the formation of healthy neural pathways.

New neural connections are always forming, but the process can be facilitated by learning and by changing behavioral actions. While human beings have many needs, there are a few basic requirements that must be met every day, without which normal mental and physical functioning is impossible. These include:

  • Nutrition, hydration and a regular meal schedule
  • Quality sleep and a regular sleep schedule
  • Regular exercise and tissue oxygenation
  • Positive social interaction
  • Exposure to sunlight

The notion of balance between mind, body, spirit and social activities is central to ancient medical practices, unlike the symptom management approach we use today. A balanced, healthy lifestyle appears to be more critical for normal brain development and function, and the prevention of maladaptive responses.

Making small changes over time

Free will may not be enough to overcome abnormal neural pathways, but a few small changes in the daily schedule and a bit of commitment and support can make an enormous difference.

First of all, there are only 24 hours in a day. Assuming eight hours a day are spent on work and eight more on sleep, only eight hours remain. Most people need time to shop, cook, clean, do laundry, bathe and care for family members and/or pets. If any time is left, activities like church, gardening, reading, journaling, prayer, phone calls and steps toward personal goals can be accomplished.

For those who need additional help, neurofeedback is a relatively new form of brain training that involves a simple, noninvasive procedure that involves a series of sessions using a computer and brainwave-software interface. Neurofeedback has been shown to improve self-regulation and has helped many people overcome behavioral health disorders.

Changing the small things changes the big things over time, but it is a much easier approach. In fact, self-regulation gets easier over time because new pathways are formed to replace the maladaptive pathways. Feelings of accomplishment and belief in oneself soon replace old patterns of feelings and behavior, giving rise to a new sense of empowerment and personal freedom.

About us

Sovereign Health of Texas provides a residential treatment center in El Paso for those struggling with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental health disorders. Sovereign Health uses experiential therapies to teach patients the life skills of getting in touch with their feelings and expressing those feelings in healthy ways.

About the author

Dana Connolly, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she translates current research into practical information. She earned her Ph.D. in research and theory development from New York University and has decades of experience in clinical care, medical research and health education. The Sovereign Health Group is a health information resource and Dr. Connolly helps to ensure excellence in our model. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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