Is dopamine working for or against you?

You're at the company party. You made a deal with yourself before hand; easy on the alcohol, lots of snacking from the veggie tray, no sugar. But there in front of you is a plate of your absolute favorite cookies. You know the ones. You try to distract yourself, but you can't help but keep looking in the direction of those little temptations. Ugh, your brain just won't let go of thinking about those cookies! You're distracted in conversation, all of a sudden time slows down. You just want the damn cookie! And so, like every other normal human being on this planet, you give in, and experience the sweet relief of giving into an urge, and feeling that immediate reward from your brain, which comes in the from of a hit of dopamine. 

The Role Of Dopamine

This scenario is very familiar around this time of year, but can manifest at anytime. It can be the treats in your freezer or cupboard. It can be your phone suddenly chiming that you have a new like on Facebook. It can be the video game you constantly want to play, or the series on Netflix you keep binging. Whatever the temptation, we're driven to these things by the all powerful promise of dopamine from our brain.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, and plays a prominent role in reward-motivated behavior. Dopamine is what drives achievement, and this is when it works for you. We set a goal, and as we work towards that goal and accomplish milestones along the way, we're rewarded with little dopamine bumps, and this compels us to keep on keeping on.

But if we allow ourselves to seek dopamine from other, easier pleasures, we no longer really seek the dopamine hit from working towards our goal, because we can get it from eating a piece of chocolate. Then suddenly, dopamine is working against us.

Your Brain Is Just Doing Its Job

The majority of our brain doesn't see it this way. If we do something that triggers dopamine, it must be desirable, and we should keep doing it, regardless of whether it's the exhilaration of getting through a public speaking engagement, or sticking a needle in our arm for a dose of heroine. 

So how do we control this? How do we direct ourselves to use dopamine for our good, and not for our bad? We need to practice awareness around the behaviors that get the dopamine hit, but don't serve our elevated selves. Simply paying attention, and thinking on why you follow and give in to an urge, can start to create change. 

Create strategies to replace a behavior that typically leads to a release of dopamine, with another behavior that can make you feel good. You might not get the bigger rush of dopamine you would get by drinking a mocha or soda, but if your're willing to get by with the smaller bump of dopamine that a walk or some meditation would give you, you can train your brain to break that "bad" behavior, and replace it with one that serves you well. 

Another thing to keep in mind, that often happens with drug addicts, is that more and more of whatever it is that gives you the dopamine hit is required to get the same amount of dopamine release over time. This is exactly why people can go from checking social media once an hour, to obsessively checking it multiple times an hour. 

Lastly, to get dopamine surges back under control, you'll need to face the fact that you're going to have to feel bad from time to time. If you need to break yourself away from a bad habit or urge, your brain is going to throw a tantrum, and there's no getting around this. That's why it's so hard to cut down on sugar, cut down on drinking, cut down on video games, cut down on social media. You're changing the physical structure of your brain when you do it, and your brain's going to fight it tooth and nail, since the brain is all about efficiency and habitual behavior, and changing brain structure requires precious resources that could be allocated elsewhere.  

Be Thankful For Dopamine

Without dopamine, we'd have no motivation, no drive to continue working towards a goal, and we'd take no pleasure in everyday life. Dopamine is not a villain. It's quite the opposite. But in our world of instant gratification and disconnection from our own mind, it can enforce and cement in behaviors that don't serve to make us healthy, or happy. 

You can take action to create awareness around your thoughts (10 minutes of meditation is the perfect place to start), so you can decide what is worth the dopamine hit, and what is not.