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Education

Dopamine

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Today, I wanted to chat with you more about dopamine. This very special neurotransmitter can bring us so much pleasure, but it can also bring us a lot of pain. I was surprised by this research, especially how much our 21st century lifestyles does not support our dopamine levels. Before we start, as you know, this blog is completely judgement free. The below mentioning are scientific evidence. If you do feel you are struggling or need help with addiction, please reach out to your healthcare professional 💕. Let’s dive in.

A coffee with the name "dopeamine" on it
Photo by Jhunelle Francis Sardido on Unsplash

What is Dopamine?

Let us start with the most obvious question: What is dopamine? Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that, ultimately, is responsible for pleasure’s final and common pathway in our brain. First off, “pleasure” does sound really nice. Who does not want to experience pleasure (and we are talking about pleasure here in the neuroscientific sense)?

Unfortunately, pain and pleasure are co-located in our brain. They basically work like opposite sides of a see-saw. They want to be balanced out and leveled. But also, if we do something that brings us pleasure, our pain part of the brain will over- (or down-)regulate our levels. This means that, basically, the higher the high, the further the low will also go. It takes a bit of time until the brain comes back to a state of harmony and balance.

A glass wine with a spacey background
Photo by Sérgio Alves Santos on Unsplash

Dopamine and Drugs

Now that we know what dopamine is, let us look at dopamine in connection with drugs. The more dopamine gets released in our bodies, the faster we have the potential for addiction. The more drugs we use, the “lower” our lows will also be and our pain surrounding that. We may feel like we cannot concentrate, are depressed, anxious, suicidal, or develop cravings (i.e. wanting to use the same drug time and time again). We also need more of something in order to experience the same “hit” as before as time continues.

What Constitutes as a “Drug”?

So, you may have gotten this far in the post and thought: “Great, this does not necessarily concern me. I do not take (illegal) drugs.” Drug, in the context of dopamine can be a lot of different things and not all of them may be super obvious to you.

Because technically, for dopamine almost anything can be a drug. Of course, there are the obvious ones, e.g. your cannabis, cocaine, heroine, etc. Then there are the ones that are a lot more socially acceptable, or even encouraged: Alcohol, smoking, and working all hours of day and night. There can be addiction to food, drinks, or sports. And then, there are the ones brought onto us by our 21st century: Social media, television streaming, video games, and even online pornography.

An iphone with social media accounts on it
Photo by Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash

A Drug Can Be Anything that Stimulates Your Brain with Pleasure

Our human brains crave endings, but social media and television streaming do not provide us those endings. There will always be another Youtube video, tik tok dance, or Instagram story that can be watched. There is also another show of television that can be continued to be binged. These things no longer provide us with a natural point to pause, which is so desperately needed.

So, a “drug” – in the context of dopamine – can be anything that stimulates your brain with pleasure and that basically makes you feel bad once it is gone. How these feelings manifest themselves, e.g. continuing to watch, or feeling unable to sit in stillness, can be completely different from person to person. In fact, it is also important to mention that all of us can experience and perceive very different things as pleasure.

You also have to consider that you could be using several drugs in order to get that dopamine hit. You may be thinking, I am only having one drink of alcohol a week. At the same time, you might be binge watching shows on two nights a week, watching Instagram every day, and having sugary foods (which also stimulate your brain). All of these are also stimulating the pleasure centre of our brain and may provide overstimulation. In addition, when we deviate too far from our optimal equilibrium, we also trigger a massive stress response in our bodies, which causes huge spikes of adrenaline.

A forest with a hazy sky in the background
Photo by Filip Zrnzević on Unsplash

How Do I Reduce Dopamine Spikes?

Having read the above, you may be wondering whether you are experiencing a few things that you could interpret as withdrawal symptoms when given up (I know I certainly had an “aha” moment here…). Here is the harsh truth: The best way to assess our relationship with dopamine is to give up whatever you think may cause you addiction. We likely will experience symptoms of withdrawal, which tend to ease about a month in of giving up said drug. We may also experience cross-addiction. Because we live in such a high sensory place, there is a chance it may take some time to eliminate the true culprit.

Our bodies are able to regulate their own levels of dopamine if not hit constantly by triggers from the outside world. Once we eliminate the culprit, our pathways can reset themselves again. There is an absolute chance that you may be feeling physical withdrawal symptoms, even if we are talking about a drug such as social media.

Also, do not forget that exercise produces natural dopamine. So does being in nature, as well as being fully present and in the moment. All of these are easier said than done but we know they are good for us anyways, so they may as well represent a great starting point.

The Takeaway from this Post

I have definitely learned a lot about dopamine. I think in the future, I will pay more attention to the “rewarding” piece. “After a workout, I deserve a cookie now.” Or “when I have finished work I will have a glass of wine.” Whereas these are not biggies, they are hitting the pleasure and reward center of our brain and, thereby, dopamine. I have also noticed that I almost always feel bad coming off social media as the constant comparison may leave you feeling a bit “lacking”. Whereas this is not true and Instagram (for example) is fully curated, it can still leave you feeling insecure, self-conscious, and as if your life is not enough. I may be going on a social media detox for a few weeks.

As I said in the beginning, if you do suffer from addiction – irrespective of what – please seek out professional help. What is something you are taking away from this post? Let me know in the comments below. Thank you for reading 💕. Beautiful cover photo by Jhunelle Francis Sardido on Unsplash.

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