As our son devolved into full-on opioid addiction, one of the more concerning developments was his total lack of empathy; this once warm, emotionally engaging young man no longer cared about those around him and was completely emotionally disengaged from the family. His single focus was on getting high, even if this meant that he had to lie, steal, or cause emotional distress for those who loved him. We could always tell when he was truly in remission as he would say, “How’s so-and-so?” or “Say hi to so-and-so”.  However, these behaviors only re-emerged after many months of opioid-opiate use abstinence. This got me thinking about the specific brain changes that might occur due to opioid use that effect and empathetic response.

We clearly established that opioid use dose cause brain damage in an earlier blog post. As it turns out, opioids and opiates use the same pathways and neurotransmitters in the brain as emotions of empathy do. Studies have shown that opioids not only have the ability to dull pain, but they can dampen emotions simultaneously. Luckily, these personality changes do not have to be permanent; recent research had shown that brain damage can be reversed because of a quality neuro-scientists refer to as neuroplasticity. Because our brain’s neural circuitry is malleable and can be rewired through neuroplasticity, one’s ability to experience empathy and compassion can be restored after opioid use.

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How Can You Reverse Brain Damage Following Opioid Use?

Dr. Browne’s Free Five Element Qi Gong Meditation

Loving kindness mindful practices are specifically helpful in re-establishing empathy. Simply spend few minutes every day sitting quietly and send thoughts of love and/or compassionate thoughts to each of these groups:

  1. Family and friends
  2. One with whom you have tension or a conflict
  3. Any of those worldwide who are suffering
  4. And most importantly, yourself-imparting forgiveness and self-love

For each group send these wishes:

  • May you live with ease, may you be happy, may you be free from pain

Meditation is called a practice because it takes time and repetition to master. You cannot expect laser focus and the ability to feel the empathetic emotions when you first start practicing meditation. For me, it took 6 months of meditation practice before I was able to sit and quiet my mind. Never-the-less, you will begin reaping the rewards from focused thought immediately. These health and emotional benefits will grow in time. If you think about it, your mind is really the only thing that you can truly control in this world; taking time to train your brain is well worth the effort since it is the only true path to peace and contentment.


Retrieved September 2018

Shaffer, J. (2016). Neuroplasticity and Clinical Practice: Building Brain Power for Health. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1118.

Fuchs, E., & Flügge, G. (2014). Adult Neuroplasticity: More Than 40 Years of Research. Neural Plasticity, 2014, 541870.

Potkin, K. T., & Bunney, W. E. (2012). Sleep Improves Memory: The Effect of Sleep on Long Term Memory in Early Adolescence. PLoS ONE7(8), e42191.

Scullin, M. K., & Bliwise, D. L. (2015). Sleep, Cognition, and Normal Aging: Integrating a Half-Century of Multidisciplinary Research. Perspectives on Psychological Science : A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science10(1), 97–137.

Gomez-Pinilla, F., & Hillman, C. (2013). The Influence of Exercise on Cognitive Abilities. Comprehensive Physiology3(1), 403–428.

Ahlskog, J. E., Geda, Y. E., Graff-Radford, N. R., & Petersen, R. C. (2011). Physical Exercise as a Preventive or Disease-Modifying Treatment of Dementia and Brain Aging. Mayo Clinic Proceedings86(9), 876–884.

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