End The Pain – Train Your Brain To Overcome Codependency

If you’re codependent, have you ever wondered why you have such a difficult time doing what you want to do? You acquiesce to someone else because you can’t bare to say “no”. You take an action or allow something to happen you don’t agree with, all the while telling yourself, “Why am I doing this?” But at the same time you’re feeling the misery, you’re also feeling a sense of relief; you’ve pleased another person, you’ve avoided an even more miserable situation, or you might have even felt a sense of control.

The secret is all in your mind. Quite literally, it’s your brain!

The Neural Pathway to Pain or Pleasure

According to Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse and and Joseph Cruse, addiction research left us largely in the dark until around the 1970’s. That’s when we began to realize something:

Codependent behavior ignites a pleasure / relief center in the brain.

When you’re rewarded for sacrificing for someone else’s benefit, you’re brain says “YES, I WANT MORE!” This is because you’ve set up neural pathways that the brain uses to communicate with itself and the rest of your body, and along the way you’re specific pathways were set up to reward codependent behavior.

Remember your 8th grade science class when you learned about Pavlov and his discovery of Classical Conditioning?

  1. Pavlov rings a bell when he gives a dog food.
  2. The dog begins to associate the ringing of the bell with food.
  3. When Pavlov rings a bell, the dog begins to salivate before it gets food.

This happens because a neural pathway has been created, and the pathway to this dog’s food pleasure center lights up when it hears the bell. This concept is exactly what dog trainers use for training – stimulus  followed by rewarded response.

Dog Training Example

In the same way, codependents create pleasure or relief centers when codependent behavior is performed, and every time you find pleasure or relief through the pathway, it is brightened up! The more you brighten up these pathways, the more difficult it can be to dim them back down again. It’s as if your brain is saying, “Don’t let me down or I’ll go into withdrawal.”

The good news is you can intentionally choose to create specific neural pathways, and essentially change your own conditioned behavior. This involves recognizing triggering moments, and responding differently to develop new patterns. When you can learn to recognize the triggers that urge you toward your undesirable behavior, you’ll have the opportunity to rewire your pathways to allow a new behavior pattern to emerge.

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As Cruse state, “In codependency, it is the interaction between one’s own manufacturing ‘brain chemicals’ (having to do with our reinforcement center) and one’s behavior that stimulates the brain to establish compulsive or addictive behavior processes.” We get a rush, an exhilarating or calming effect, when we get play out our self-defeating behaviors. Dopamine produces excitement when sky-diving, running, or gambling. Serotonin calms us down when we overeat or engage in codependent behaviors. Norepinephrine gives us the feeling of power and control when we perform excessive caregiving or workaholism. And having this knowledge allows us to understand where our compulsions lie, and then begin to work on them. Isn’t it liberating to see the implications these discoveries have on the codependency trap? You can minimize and ultimately reverse the confusion, guilt, and lack of control over your mind that you feel sometimes, bringing more peace and calm into your life going forward!

Implications for Codependency Recovery

Brain science also informs life-long recovery strategy. In short term, the focus can generally be on recognizing triggers, reframing them, and developing an alternative automatic response.

For example:

Current State – An addict asks you for money to buy drugs. You give them money (even when you don’t have much) to keep them happy, believing your happiness is a result of their happiness. Later, you feel shame and guilt for having given in to their request. Now you’re left short-handed, your self-esteem weakens as a result, and you despair.

New and Improved State – An addict asks you for money to buy drugs, but instead of giving in, you’ve developed a new response. You realize that you have the right to keep your own money, and that by refusing you are establishing a healthy boundary, even though there may be a confrontation. Because you’ve established a healthy boundary, you feel a sense of healthy self-control and self worth, and in the process you’ve actually helped the other person.

By the time you’ve recognized your major triggers and reprogrammed new, healthier automatic responses, you’ve done a lot of heavy lifting and should be commended. While your original triggers may always be tempting, by reinforcing your new responses, your old pathways will weaken and you will become stronger. And in the long-term, it will be important to maintain close contact with supportive people in your life, to help you continually reinforce this good behavior!

In conclusion, your brain is one of the most important tools in your arsenal against codependency. It runs your central nervous system, which in turn can affect your mood, physical health, and overall well-being. If you want to read more about how to cultivate more space between stimulus and response in the brain, and take back more control over your life, here’s a post we wrote previously about mindfulness and meditation.


  1. Thank you for these articles and resources Jennifer. Stay strong.

  2. Working on that with my daughter…