Dopamine is our go-juice. It motivates us to chase reward and to run from danger. Without it, we might notice the bar of chocolate but would be unable to muster the energy to pick it up. We might see the car running the red light but lack the will to move out of the way.
Luckily, we come fitted out with a perfectly operational dopamine system. Arranging motivation for chasing rewarding things like food or sex or running from danger is not a problem. If, however, we overstimulate dopamine we can change the way our brain is wired. If we obtain rewards or encounter stressful situations too frequently our brain adapts by making us less sensitive to both risk and reward. This makes us simultaneously seek bigger rewards – something we call addiction – and overestimate risk – something we call anxiety.
We can overstimulate dopamine using chemicals, like cocaine, alcohol, nicotine, and sugar. Or we can do it using software like porn, social media and dating apps, that run high frequency simulations of rewarding experiences.
Chronic stress such as financial, job, or housing insecurity or health pandemics and lockdowns will achieve the same result. And we can get there using software that simulates stress, like gambling and games.
Once our brain is rewired by reward or stress, we are at very high risk of developing serious addictions and mental illness, not to mention lacking impulse control and being more prone to violence. Fortunately, there is a way to reset our brains.
Breaking an Addiction
Obviously the first step is to remove whatever it is that is overstimulating dopamine. For rewarding behaviours and substances, it means admitting we have a problem and consciously stopping. That is not easy. If it were they would not be addictive.
The research tells us that most of us will struggle to get past this hurdle the first time we try. But there is nothing to be lost in stopping again, and again, and again if necessary. Failing to quit is not a character defect, it is biochemistry and every time we abstain for even a short time, we are making the mountain a little bit easier to climb the next time.
Something that the science says will significantly improve our odds of success is finding other people who are also quitting and meeting them weekly to talk about how we are going. It keeps us and them honest and motivated. Every day away from addiction makes it much more likely we will break it.
If the source of the overstimulation is stress, then we must work to reduce stress. For some sources that is achieved introducing routine. The less decisions we must make the less uncertainty we encounter and the less we engage the mechanism that creates decision anxiety.
There are many uncertain parts of our life over which we have no control. We cannot control whether the government puts us in to a lockdown that endangers our job. We cannot control whether our landlord will delay collection of the rent. But we can control smaller things. If for example you always know what you will have for dinner on Monday night, you have removed whole chains of decisions – when to shop, how to shop, how to pay for it and how to cook – from your life. It is by definition, boring. But routine and boredom is what we are aiming for when we seek to remove uncertainty from our lives.
Using a Dopamine patch
We know that for some people it is easier to break an addiction if something which delivers a lower dopamine hit is administered and then the dose lowered slowly over time. This is the theory behind nicotine patches. Deliver the nicotine/dopamine hit without the cigarette and lower the dose over time. That notion of low dose dopamine hits will help to rewire the brain’s addictive and stressed state.
The body sometimes attempts this sort of self-help solution on its own. Pain, hunger and lack of sleep all produce dopamine hits. We see those in real-life, in the form of self-harm, intentional starvation and insomnia. The body will apply those band-aids itself if we don’t get in front of the problem.
We can do this in many other ways which don’t need drugs, pain or exhaustion. We know that anything that requires us to focus delivers a dopamine hit. So taking up a hobby, or a sport or learning to play an instrument or even meditating will all work as long as you can remain focused and live in the moment while you are doing it.
The key is focus. To focus, our brain needs to increase dopamine levels. This becomes a ‘nicotine patch’ for bringing us down from the endless chase for hits from addictive behaviours or substance while simultaneously making those same hits from stress and uncertainty more tolerable. Haven’t you always wanted to learn the piano?