Now you can retrain your brain!
Dopamine makes us excited. It affects the brain processes that control movement, emotional response and aids in the ability to experience pleasure. Most drugs of abuse target the brain’s reward system by flooding the circuit with dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that tells the brain, “I have to have this!” It’s what creates the craving experience.
In previous decades, it was believed that dopamine was the “pleasure” neurotransmitter. Current research indicates that subjects respond because of anticipation rather than pleasure. Desire is in the form of expectation.
The motivational system of the brain’s job is to pursue and achieve goals by manipulating our behavior with different degrees of desire. It could be in the form of being impulsive, being compulsive, or having a craving. It’s excitement with the expectation of a reward.
If not controlled what starts out as an impulse can create a strong desire to repeat the experience. There is an association between the behavior and pleasure, numbing or some form of escape from our stress. If repeated soon there is a strong neural pathway and what was an impulse now becomes a compulsion. Ironically, many times the compulsion is not seeking pleasure or escape from the original situation, but the results of the behavior itself. Once compulsion sets in, the striatum is primed and when we are triggered a strong craving takes place and relentlessly moves us toward what now has become an addiction. The excessive use of dopamine in like slamming the gas petal of a car to the floor.
Imagine that a person gets a donut and a cup of coffee every morning on their way to work. As this person gets up for the day, they’re thinking about getting that familiar jolt to get their day going (“What always works?”). The nucleus accumbens is already primed at the thought of their routine morning treat and starts to pump dopamine into the brain. Their mind is full of anticipation. They think about it while they’re getting dressed. The thought of coffee and pastry at the donut shop gets them out the door. Excitement increases and they can taste the maple frosting miles before they reach the drive-up window. They wait in line and wonder what’s taking so long. Their brain is shouting, “I need this donut!” They order and finally get the bag with the donut and the hot cup of coffee with double cream. Before they leave the parking lot, the bag is open, and the donut is already on its way to their mouth. They take a bite. How long did this process last? A couple of seconds. Do they really taste it? Before they know it, the second bite is going down, and the taste is being washed away with coffee. The maple flavor is lost, but they don’t care. It’s about finishing what was started.
The dopamine was not about pleasure—it was about anticipation.
It was about the quest to get the object they were longing for. It was about the desire—wanting, not simply liking. Yes, it was originally about liking. Probably the first time they were caught off guard and were lured having the donut because they were hungry. The donut and coffee satisfied the need to be comforted or woke them up and got them ready for work. The calming effect was the result of sugar boosting the amount of serotonin and the energy jolt was the result of coffee boosting adrenaline. It was such pleasant experience it primed their brain to desire this situation again. So now, they wake up and think of the coffee and donut in the morning and that trigger starts the dopamine pumping. The job of dopamine is to get them to the shop.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter active in our brain’s motivation center and is released when we relate to things we like. The purpose of dopamine is to increase a state of arousal so we can process sensory input faster and sharper. As a motivator, it entices us to come back for more and more. I have to have it! The anticipation is tremendous.
It seems logical that a person bingeing on food, pornography, or drugs has more dopamine receptors than the normal person and, therefore, keeps bingeing. However, that is wrong! Bingeing is due to the opposite. The repeated use of dopamine-producing substances or activities reduces the amount of dopamine, so more substance or a higher activity level is needed to achieve satisfaction. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain responsible for controlling impulses, decision making and exercising judgment—is severely hampered because of the decrease in dopamine. So, we get to a point where we’re doing drugs, watching porn, or binge-eating just because we don’t feel satisfied, which causes our brain to be less likely to exert control over the behavior. A vicious cycle ensues as these individuals consume greater quantities of the object of their craving (e.g., calorie-dense food) to achieve reward and are, at the same time, less able to exert control over their behavior.
Dopamine is not the enemy – We just need to retrain the brain Remember the brain is a learning machine. It learns through association. The limbic system with the amygdala learns what is dangerous and protects us. Unfortunately, not everything we associate with fear is true. (The monster in the basement) So we need to emotionally relearn what is dangerous and what isn’t. It is the same way with the reward system (Mesolimbic pathway). Not everything that has been associated with pleasure that we feel and drives the “I have to have it”, is legitimate.
GOOD NEWS! There are ways that we can overcome an illegitimate dopamine surge.
1. We can combat the dopamine rush by reassessing the reward!
When we are triggered and the dopamine is surging it is pushing us toward a reward. Dopamine did not decide what the reward was. Somewhere we made the association. The good news is we can choose again. Rewards are powerful. For example, they did a study at Stanford, where they took children that loved to draw. They were motivated intrinsically by the pleasure they received from drawing. They took the children and asked them to draw. When completed they started giving them a gold star for completing the drawing. This created an extrinsic reward which the feeling of a gold star caused a dopamine seeking system. Now they drew because the dopamine was pushing them to receive the adulation from getting a gold star. Next, they stopped giving the children a gold star when completing a drawing. What they found out was that children who loved to draw (intrinsic motivation) repeatedly given a gold for their drawing (extrinsic motivation) loss their desire to draw when the gold stars were no longer given out. This is how powerful dopamine is in motivating our behavior.
This proves if we can stop the reward causing the dopamine rush, we can extinguish the behavior.
One way that we can change the reward is by reassessing its value. This is called the Reward Value. There may have been a valuable reward when you first started smoking. It made you look cool. It helped get you going in the morning. Or perhaps it helped you calm down. But now you are older. Is the reward still that valuable? When you compare the value against the negative consequences, is it still valuable? When you can see that the value has diminished and is not worth smoking, you can more easily quit.
Sugar has its reward but when you have gained thirty pounds is the reward of eating sugary treats still that appealing? We need to ask ourselves,
Is what I am doing really worth it?
Is my life really better with this or without it?
It helps to self-monitor – What exactly are you doing? Anna Lembke, in her book, Dopamine Nation – Finding Balance In The Age Of Indulgence, talks about living in a world that is overstimulated by dopamine. Marketing, entertainment, social media have created an environment of instant gratification, competition, comparison where we are always being triggered. She suggests that we monitor what we are doing in order to get a better understanding of our motivation or habitual behavior.
It is surprising how many of us are deeply involved in dopamine driven behaviors, but we don’t really see it. It is our normal. We don’t want to be “that person” but often we live in denial and are actually living the way we really don’t want to. In order to change we need to know what needs to be changed. Be your own detective Take a look your behavior. What are you doing? Tract your behavior.
How often are you participating in it?
How long do you spend at a time?
Ask yourself What am I doing? Where am I doing it? When am I doing it? Who am I doing it with?
Don’t just take your word for it. Ask others that know you. If you are going to change you need to know exactly what you are going to change. Someone who knows you and genuinely cares for you will be honest and help you see potential blind spots. What is it doing for me? The other “W” question that we need to ask ourselves is, “Why am I doing this?” What do you perceive as the reward. We do things that reward us. So we need to ask ourself, “What am I gaining? What is this behavior doing for me. We also need to ask, “What am I avoiding.” Often the reward is escaping from the perceived consequences that we think are eminent.
By asking yourself, what am I really gaining from this behavior you can see if the reward is still viable or would you be better of without this? When you see that the reward is not worth it, you can now say with certainty that, “This is faulty wiring; the reward is no longer significant. I do not have to listen to it. I am not going to die if I don’t get it.”
2. We can combat the dopamine rush by doing a Dopamine Fast!
Another way to overcome the dopamine. Triggers are powerful and we are not going to get rid of it in one day. The best thing to do is to commit to stopping for thirty days. There is a reason that treatment centers are normally 28-30 days. It takes that long to reset the brain. You haven’t arrived in thirty days but the desire has toned down. You are in a much better place to make good judgement calls on what to do next.
By staying away from those things that trigger you, the behaviors that dopamine is driving you toward for thirty days, you will be well on your way to breaking the dopamine cycle
3. We can combat the dopamine rush by fighting Dopamine with Dopamine! Replace one behavior for something better
Once you know that the reward you were getting is no longer significant, but that you were simply reacting to a trigger and dopamine was pushing you to the behavior, you can replace it with something better. This happens when we come to the realization that we need a change, and we know that there is a better path. As we focus on the new behavior, we can use visualization, research, conversation with others to motivate us toward change. Once we desire it, then the new goal will be rewarding, and dopamine can help us continue in the process. We are using the dopamine rush for the new behavior to extinguish the old behavior.
Turn On Desire Toward Something Beneficial
When we are intrinsically motivated, that is motivated from within, we enjoy the process and strive to do better. This is the growth mindset. We need to turn on a “motivational switch,” that is desire, in which we receive joy and satisfaction from the new behavior. The “I got to have it” feeling. Oxytocin and endorphins provide the exhilaration of being involved in the process, while serotonin provides the satisfaction. This is much like the inventor. They love inventing, improving, improvising, and learning, so each day the process is the reward. They are motivated and dopamine helps them move toward their goals. Dr. Huberman says this is where we get joy, bliss, delight, satisfaction, contentment and most of all, happiness. Their prefrontal cortex loves the challenge, and the dopamine anticipates the thrill of discovery and growth and motivates him or her.
Don’t let dopamine continue to take you down the wrong road. You can retrain your brain and change your desires.
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