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Are you stuck on the dopamine roller coaster?

An email ping, a high score, a PB, the extra slice, the new connection, the latest release. We’re all hooked on the new, the next, the bigger, the better, the wilder, the brighter. The things that give us the rush and the high, or the calm and peace.


We’re all addicted to Dopamine. The key neurotransmitter in our reward pathway. The hangover from our times of scarcity, vital to chase away the next lion or seek out the next roots and fruit, but less helpful in our current environment.  It tells us when to feel pleasure and when to feel pain. And it can drive us to bad habits and away from the things that matter.

According to neuroscientists dopamine is our ‘drug of choice’. Our brains have evolved to crave the hit of pleasure it gives us. And it impacts everything – work, relationships, health and wellbeing.


Authentic ambition or short-term win?

Think about your goals for the next week, are they motivated by long-term, authentic ambitions? Or are they motivated by short-term gratification? Is securing that next project contributing to your long-term plan or is it giving you a hit of pleasure before you go after the next one? Are you making meaningful connections or just collecting another number for your contact list? Are you giving thoughtful gifts that will enhance the receiver or just seeking the hit of gratification?

Understanding your relationship with dopamine can help you be more in control of every aspect of your life.


The dopamine detox

In a recent episode of the Modern Wisdom podcast, Anna Lembke, psychiatrist, Chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at Stanford University and author of Dopamine Nation, talked about the concept of a dopamine detox.

According to Lembke, dopamine creates a see-saw balance of pleasure and pain that can cause depression and anxiety, and cravings driven by dopamine are fuelling our addictions to phones, work, video games, food, bad relationships, and worse. 

The brain wants to stay in homeostasis – level and balanced – it doesn’t want to veer to pleasure or pain for too long. So when you eat the biscuit, your brain adapts to that pleasure by tipping the balance to an equal amount of pain. That’s the comedown, that makes you go for biscuit number 2, and 3… and if you continue to expose yourself to behaviours that deliver the hit the pleasure gets shorter and the after response gets longer, so you need more of the ‘drug’ to get the same effect. This can lead to a chronic dopamine deficit where you just need more hits just to feel normal.

So whether it’s smart phones, biscuits, or client wins, we’re all stuck in a viscous dopamine cycle.

But what if you could break that cycle?  That’s where the detox comes in.

You can reset your dopamine balance and learn to adopt healthier behaviours. Here’s how Lembke suggests you get your dopamine under control:

  • Identify your addictions and go on a dopamine fast to restore your homeostatic baselines and reset your pathways. Lembke suggests a month, but if that’s too hard try a week, or even a couple of days – it’ll be a challenge, you’ll be restless and anxious in withdrawal, but try and become mindfully aware of the process.
  • When you go back to your ‘drug’ think about the balance and try to use in moderation, so you don’t get into the viscous cycle of dopamine deficit again. Make sure you leave enough space in between ‘hits’ for homeostasis to be restored.
  • Don’t make you drug accessible – if it’s your phone, put it on grayscale, delete apps, and keep a record to keep you accountable.
  • Tell the truth to others about what you’re doing and it will help you be more truthful to yourself.

The pursuit of purpose

Instead of filling our lives with the pursuit of instant gratification and the pursuit of pleasure for pleasures sake, we need to take a step and try to connect with something deeper.

Where pleasure can actually make us miserable, purpose can give us meaning. When you have work you believe in, people in your life who you truly connect with, and you’re contributing to the world around you, you’re not only too busy to pursue endless hits of pleasure but you’re more resilient and able to endure the pain of dopamine comedowns.

The next time you feel that hit of euphoria, ask yourself, are you doing it just for the instant gratification, or is contributing something to your life? Will it drive you to simply seek more of the same or is it driving you to achieving something real? When we take a step back from the dopamine treadmill we can reset and reconnect with true connection, true focus, and true fulfilment.