Break the cycle of addiction with these strategies to control dopamine : Life Kit : NPR
Meredith Miotke for NPR
Whether it’s sugar, social media, or sex, our brain’s response is the same: it produces the “feel-good” neurochemical called dopamine, which induces feelings of pleasure and motivation. “This may be even more important for motivation than for actual enjoyment,” says Dr Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist at Stanford Medical School, researcher and author of the new book, Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence.
A hit of dopamine brings pleasure, then is quickly followed by pain, or a slump, to keep us motivated. Lembke says this balanced swing between pleasure and pain made sense in the days of early humans, when we had to constantly seek out our basic needs – food, water, shelter. “It’s really an ingenious method to make sure that whatever you do, it’s pleasant. It doesn’t last very long and it’s followed by pain so that immediately you look again” , she explains.
But, in modern life, we live in a world of abundance rather than scarcity, and Lembke says our brains haven’t evolved for the “dopamine firehouse” of sugar, social media, television, sex, drugs, or any number of dopamine-triggering stimuli so readily available. In short, says Lembke, almost all behaviors have become “drugged”.
When we are repeatedly exposed to our pleasure-generating stimuli, our brain adapts and eventually we need more and more to feel “normal” or not in pain. It’s called a “dopamine deficiency state,” and the cycle that gets us there can actually lead to depression, anxiety, irritability, and insomnia.
“We can’t look forward to more modest rewards,” says Lembke. “Now our drug of choice doesn’t even get us high. It just makes us feel normal. And when we don’t use, we experience the universal symptoms of withdrawal from any addictive substance, which are anxiety, irritability , insomnia, dysphoria and envy.”
Ultimately, Lembke says, this is a universal problem — not limited to those of us who struggle with the disease of addiction — that has come with modern life. And to restore our sanity, we must collectively rethink how to navigate a dopamine-overloaded world.
Meredith Miotke for NPR
Break the cycle and restore the balance
Start with a dopamine fast. Take a 30-day break from everything you rely on for pleasure: social media, sugar, video games, sex, pot, alcohol – anything, really. That doesn’t mean you have to stay cold forever, but that first month is essential for restoring your pleasure-pain balance. It’s much easier to completely suppress an addictive behavior at first and then reintroduce it in moderation.
Lembke warns that you’ll likely feel much worse before you start feeling better. But she says stick with it — after about two weeks, the pleasure-pain swing in your brain will begin to return to its natural balance, and you’ll be able to enjoy smaller rewards, like a single scoop of ice cream. or just an episode of a TV show.
There is a caveat: this is not the approach to take with highly addictive substances like drugs and alcohol. Going cold turkey can actually cause life-threatening withdrawal and should be done under the supervision of a professional.
Put barriers between you and your addictive behaviors
There are three ways to “bind” – or set limits – to the behavior you’re addicted to. Using these strategies can help you enjoy some version of this behavior without letting it take over.
- Physical self-binding: Create real distance between you and your addiction. It could simply mean removing the addictive substance from your home and spaces. For someone who is addicted to video games, that might mean a separate laptop for work and another for play.
- Chronological or temporal link: The 30 day fast from your addictive behaviors counts as a chronological or time bound. It could also look like intermittent fasting for someone with a food addiction or a time limit check on social media apps.
- Categorical link: That means limiting yourself to certain types of “substances” – maybe reality TV sucks you in beyond your control, but you can consume a sitcom in moderation. Cutting reality TV from your life would be a categorical obligation.
For long-term change, radical honesty and community are essential
In her addiction treatment work, Lembke says she sees the most success in long-term recovery when people can’t lie. She explains that while we’re often terrified of being radically honest with others because we think they’ll run, the opposite is actually happening: radical honesty fosters intimacy. . “And intimacy is an incredibly valuable and powerful source of dopamine,” she says. “We know that when we establish intimate human relationships, oxytocin binds to dopamine, releasing neurons in the reward pathway and dopamine is released and it feels really good.”
Another level is being radically honest with ourselves. Lembke explains that if we tell ourselves stories that are not true, we will repeat our mistakes. But if we are ruthlessly honest about our flaws and how we have contributed to our own problems, we can work through those mistakes and navigate the future differently.
“People in recovery are modern-day prophets,” says Lembke. To maintain balance and wholeness in the heart, we must strike a pleasure-pain balance, which in a time of abundance and overconsumption means intentionally avoiding pleasure and seeking the kind of intentional pain that keeps us going. good health, such as exercising or resisting certain temptations.
“By doing this,” Lembke says, “we’re going to reset the reward pathways and ultimately be a lot happier. It’s simple but not easy, but it’s worth it.”
Elise Hu is also the host of TED Talks daily podcast.
The podcast portion of this story was produced by Audrey Nguyen.
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