DOPAMINE ADDICTION What You Need to Know
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Pleasure is something we all need in life.
At times, though, we can get too focused on it, or on specific activities that feel pleasurable to us. They can get out of control, and may even lead to addiction. This is because we can get hooked on the good feelings we’re flooded with when we conduct pleasurable activities.
Those feelings are often referred to as a “high,” which is something people are known to “chase.”
We’ll take a look at the brain chemical dopamine and examine how it can be a slippery slope for some people in relation to addiction. First, you’ll learn what dopamine is. Then, we’ll examine the pleasurable activities that can provide it, why they can potentially lead to problems, and what behaviors you can follow to prevent getting too dependent on the feelings that accompany a surge in dopamine.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter.1 That means it’s a chemical that sends signals inside our brains. Neurotransmitters have a wide assortment of functions, and dopamine’s function centers around the pleasure and reward areas of our brains.
It’s known as one of the “pleasure chemicals” because of that fact. Other feel-good chemicals include serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins.
When you do something that you like the feeling of, your brain sends a signal of pleasure to your brain.2 Then, you associate that activity with the feeling of pleasure. When that happens, it can become difficult to separate the physical occurrence from the feeling of pleasure it gave you.
It’s normal to then remember that experience as something that provided you with good feelings.
Dopamine is important in our everyday lives outside of feelings of pleasure. It plays a role in everything from motivation to mood to memory. Having a healthy level of dopamine is necessary, and if your body isn’t producing enough, it can lead to problems such as depression and insomnia.
Activities That Release Dopamine
Basically, anything you do that feels good can release dopamine in your brain. Some of these things are good ways to naturally ensure you have sufficient dopamine levels, are some aren’t. These are some examples of activities that release dopamine:
- Having sex
- Eating a tasty meal or dessert
- Listening to music
- Recreational drugs and alcohol
- Risky Behaviors Associated With Dopamine
You may have heard the saying that it’s possible to get too much of a good thing. That idea is why dopamine can potentially become a problem for someone.3
Let’s look at what becoming dependent on the rush of dopamine can involve.
For one example, getting dependent on having sex can lead to sex addiction. Because it makes us feel good, we may seek it out in ways that are unsafe for us. This can involve having unprotected sex, having sex with someone who is a stranger and might be dangerous, or not taking care of the responsibilities you have in life because you are busy pursuing sex.
Another example of risky behavior that can be based in the urge for dopamine is eating. On the one hand, we have to eat! We can’t survive without it. And it’s completely normal to want to eat foods that taste good to us.
However, eating can get out of control and become a food addiction, in which a person’s relationship with food becomes more about eating to feel good than eating to stay alive.
Alcohol and Substance Use Disorders
A third example of how the quest for dopamine can lead to problems is with alcohol and recreational drugs.1 These substances release dopamine in the most straightforward way of all, with drugs like cocaine directly flooding our brains with it.
Drug addiction and alcoholism can be life-threatening and can have terrible impacts on the lives of both the person with the addiction and everyone else they are close to.
In addition to the above, there are countless other dopamine-oriented activities that can lead to major problems and risky behaviors. They can be as big and life-altering as losing your financial savings due to gambling, or as temporary as exercising too much and obtaining a minor injury from overusing parts of your body.
Is Dopamine Addiction Possible?
It is not technically possible to get addicted to dopamine. It occurs naturally in our bodies, and we can’t directly take it as a food or drug. However, it is completely possible to get addicted to any activity that increases our dopamine levels.
Even though we aren’t directly addicted to dopamine itself, we may be addicted to an activity because of the dopamine it releases in our brains.
Ways to Avoid Dopamine Dependence
Although it’s important to perform activities that release dopamine, for the sake of feeling good regularly, it is also vital that you don’t become dependent on that release.
It might be a shorter journey than you’d think to go from simply enjoying a pleasurable act on occasion and being hooked on it in a way that is harmful to your life (or the lives of others).
Below are some ideas to help you have a healthy relationship with dopamine and help avoid dependence.
In order to avoid getting too much of a good thing, it can be helpful to have boundaries. For example, if you love to exercise but you find yourself getting hurt because you’re overdoing it, set up your workout plan a week ahead of time.
Review your plan and consider confirming with a professional trainer that it is a moderate exercise plan and not one that risks you getting injured because it’s too strenuous.
As far as how to set your boundaries, if you have a good memory you can simply think ahead and schedule out how long you’ll spend with different activities or how much of them you’ll do.
If you want to feel more accountable to yourself than that, or your memory isn’t great, use a journal to write down your boundaries or send an email to yourself.
Making sure you are getting enough relaxation in your day can help to combat the feeling that you need to perform dopamine-boosting activities more often than what is considered healthy.
Any self care practice can be calming to your nerves, as can very simple activities like deep breathing.
Conduct Activities Mindfully
Another great way to keep tabs on yourself and avoid getting too dependent on the release of dopamine is to make yourself more aware of what you do.
Mindfulness is the act of making a big point of paying attention in the moment, day to day, rather than functioning on autopilot all the time.
Before you set out to do something you enjoy that you feel you might be getting dependent on, check in with yourself.
Assess how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, and any concerns you may have about your behavior. Then as you go along with that activity, continue checking in with yourself to make sure everything is feeling calm and not like you’re getting too into the “high” of the act.
What to Do If Things Get Out of Control
Addiction is complex, and science is still uncovering why it affects some people more than others. Even though you can’t be directly addicted to dopamine, you can get addicted to any activity that releases it.
If you’ve tried to mitigate your behavior and you haven’t been successful, there are many people who can help you.
You’ve probably heard of dopamine as a “pleasure chemical” that’s been associated with addiction.
Think of the term “dopamine rush.” People use it to describe the flood of pleasure that comes from making a new purchase or finding a $20 bill on the ground.
But some of what you’ve heard may be more myth than fact.
Experts are still studying exactly how dopamine, a neurotransmitter, works in the context of addiction.
Many believe it trains your brain to avoid unpleasant experiences and seek out pleasurable ones.
It’s this role in reinforcing your brain’s quest for pleasure that’s led many to associate dopamine with addiction. But it’s not that simple. While dopamine does play a role in addiction, this role is complex and not fully understood.
Read on to learn more about the myths and facts surrounding dopamine’s role in addiction.
Myth: You can be addicted to dopamine
There’s a popular misconception that people experiencing addiction are actually addicted to dopamine, rather than drugs or certain activities.
Experiences that make you feel good, including using drugs, activate your brain’s reward center, which responds by releasing dopamine. This release causes your brain to focus more of its attention on the experience. As a result, you’re left with a strong memory of the pleasure you felt.
This strong memory can prompt you to make an effort to experience it again by using drugs or seeking out certain experiences. But the drug or activity is still the underlying source of this behavior.
Fact: Dopamine is a motivator
While dopamine isn’t the sole cause of addiction, its motivational properties are thought to play a role in addiction.
Remember, the reward center in your brain releases dopamine in response to pleasurable experiences. This part of your brain is also closely linked to memory and motivation.
THE SEEDS OF ADDICTION
Generally speaking, when you experience a positive sensation and dopamine is released into the pathways of the reward center, your brain takes note of:
- What triggered the sensation: Was it a substance? A behavior? A type of food?
- Any cues from your environment that can help you find it again. Did you experience it at night? What else were you doing? Were you with a certain person?
- When you’re exposed to those environmental cues, you’ll begin to feel the same drive to seek out that same pleasure. This drive can be incredibly powerful, creating an urge that’s hard to control.
Keep in mind that this process doesn’t always involve harmful substances or activities.
Eating good food, having sex, creating art, and a range of other things can trigger similar responses from your brain’s reward center.
Myth: Dopamine is the ‘pleasure chemical’
People sometimes refer to dopamine as the “pleasure chemical.” This term stems from the misconception that dopamine is directly responsible for feelings of euphoria or pleasure.
Dopamine does contribute to your experience of pleasure. But it doesn’t have much to do with creating pleasurable feelings, experts believe.
Instead, it helps reinforce enjoyable sensations and behaviors by linking things that make you feel good with a desire to do them again.
This link is an important factor in the development of addiction.
Neurotransmitters that do cause feelings of pleasure or euphoria include:
Fact: Dopamine plays a role in developing tolerance
In the context of drugs, tolerance refers to the point at which you stop feeling the effects of a drug to the same degree that you used to, even though you’re consuming the same amount of the drug.
If you develop a tolerance to a substance, you’ll need to use more of it to feel the effects you’re used to. Dopamine plays a role in this process.
Consistent drug misuse eventually leads to overstimulation in the reward center. Its pathways become overwhelmed, making it harder for it to handle the high levels of dopamine being released.
The brain tries to solve this problem in two ways:
- decreasing dopamine production
- reducing dopamine receptors
Either change generally results in the substance having less of an effect due to a weaker response by the brain’s reward center.
Still, the craving to use remains. It just takes more of the drug to satisfy it.
There’s no single cause of addiction
Addiction is a complex brain disorder that doesn’t have a single, obvious cause. Dopamine plays a role, but it’s one small piece of a larger puzzle.
Experts believe a range of biological and environmental factors can significantly increase someone’s risk for addiction.
Some of these biological factors include:
- Genes. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 40 to 60 percentTrusted Source of addiction risk stems from genetic factors.
- Health history. Having a history of certain medical conditions, particularly mental health conditions, can increase your risk.
- Developmental stage. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, using drugs as a teenager increases your risk for addiction down the road.
Environmental factors, particularly for children and teenagers, include:
- Home life. Living with or near people who misuse drugs can increase risk.
- Social influences. Having friends who take drugs can make it more likely you’ll try them and potentially develop an addiction.
- Challenges at school. Having troubles socially or academically can increase your risk for trying drugs and eventually developing an addiction.
These are just some of the many factors that can contribute to addiction. Keep in mind they don’t mean an addiction will definitely develop.
How to get help
If you or someone close to you is experiencing addiction, help is available.
The first step in getting help is reaching out. You can talk to your healthcare provider about addiction treatment or ask for a referral to another doctor.
If you’re not comfortable bringing it up, there are many organizations that can help without requiring you to see your primary healthcare provider.
Consider the following:
- The National Institute on Drug Abuse offers resources that can help you decide if you’re ready to seek help.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a treatment services locator and phone numbers for national helplines.
Addiction treatment often involves medical care, especially if drug misuse is affecting your health or your need to safely detox.
But talk therapy is also an important part of addiction treatment, whether the addiction involves drugs, alcohol, or a certain behavior.
Typically, therapy is the primary treatment for behavioral addictions, such as compulsive gambling or shopping.
The bottom line
Dopamine is one of the many factors that can contribute to addiction. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t be addicted dopamine. But it does play an important role in motivating you to seek out pleasurable experiences.
Dopamine also contributes to tolerance, which requires you to need more of a substance or activity to feel the same effects you initially did.
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