The Dopamine Chase

People like to think they have total control over themselves, including their brain. This is the reason that physical disability and mental and cognitive health issues can be so devastating; because they show us that we do not have total control over what is happening internally. In fact, as you start to learn more about the brain, it is pretty amazing how powerless we truly are about what is happening, even about areas of life where we think we have influence.

This is how I treat what I refer to as Addiction. This may make sense to some of you and not to others. Some may stop reading now because they are thinking that a discussion about Addiction does not apply. If you are open and willing, I would encourage you to keep reading because you might be surprised how applicable this is to you.

There are a lot of people in the world who identify and recognize having Addiction issues. These are usually people who have progressed into having moderate to severe issues, usually with behaviours, and usually ones that are interfering with their quality of life. This might include people who are struggling with substance use (drugs and alcohol), food (eating disorders), or gambling. Some people will start to identify as having Addiction when their relationship with sex is taking over in their lives. Fewer others are starting to see their unmanageability with relationships, like codependency for example, and exploring this as part of Addiction. Where else can these issues pop up? Well, really everywhere but that becomes a bit (or a lot) overwhelming for people to consider. However, it’s true, and here’s why.

Quick disclaimer as I enter into the rest of the blog post. I am not a neuroscientist or psychologist and what I write below is based on my somewhat layman’s perspective and understanding of the brain and functioning. If you are more specialized in understanding the brain and pick out any details that are incorrect, please let me know. I am open to continuous learning and growth and do not want to lead anyone astray with misinformation. There is enough of that in the world right now!

Alright, back to it. What all of these issues identified above have in common is the brain and dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that provides information on what we need to do more of. The more intense an experience, the stronger the dopamine response. This then translates into a “we need to do more of that” message, that the neurotransmitter glutamate codes as “okay, we will remember to do more of that next time.” Simple, right? From a biochemical perspective, yes, but from a brain and behaviour perspective, this is where it gets tricky.

What people do not like to admit is that this dopamine-glutamate circuit is a significant driver of one’s wishes, desires, and subsequent behaviour. Tried a hallucinogen with some friends one time while camping? This created a stronger dopamine response then, say, not doing hallucinogens in the woods that the brain codes to remember that. A one time occurrence may not have tremendous internal power but, for some, it does. Every individual’s physiology and genetic make-up is different and can be such that one drinking or drugging or sexing episode is all it takes for the brain to get “hooked,” which is really just the dopamine response being so high and strong that it resulted in a memory coding that results in rumination, craving, and even full on obsession about that behaviour or substance until it happens again. And again. And again. And again. Hopefully it is starting to make sense how this cycle is connected to Addiction. This is the physiological cycle of the disease of more, which is often how Addiction is referred to.

How about for those without Addiction, or at least obvious Addiction? This is where the conversation still pertains to you too, because all of us have dopamine and glutamate and all of us have experiences in life that come with stronger excitation levels then others. Most of us have some genetic risk for Addiction as well and, hence, can find ourselves going along in life in a balanced way, until you hit that behaviour, person, or thing that comes with that strong dopamine response that might be just enough to push your brain across the proverbial pickle line into Addiction. Even if that does not happen, you might find yourself having an unhealthy relationship with that behaviour, person, or thing which might cause anything from mild irritation to significant challenge in your quest for a balanced life.

This part of the brain can get a dopamine hit off of anything. This can include things we often deem “healthy” like work, exercise, relationships, spirituality, adrenaline fuelled experiences and sports, travel, change, and more. It can also come from things we recognize have the propensity to become unhealthy, like drugs, alcohol, media and technology, sex, relationships, drama, gossip, food, and more.

From my perspective, when I am working with clients, I encourage them to be aware of this cycle in the brain. If people are finding themselves stuck in a problematic behavioural loop, it is important to remember that this dopamine response is happening and has likely been conditioned over some time. The neat thing about our brains (or at least one of many as our brains are pretty amazing), is that we do have the ability to “cool down” this conditioning, so to speak, by steering away from fueling the dopamine cycle with that particular thing and shifting to diversity and balance of activities in other areas. This takes time, but is possible. There may always exist a higher vulnerability with certain behaviours, people, or things but with awareness and boundaries, maintaining a healthy quality of life is possible.

The long and the short of it is, we are all vulnerable to getting caught in problematic behaviour cycles. By learning to appreciate what is happening physiologically, we can hopefully make choices in our lives that keep us healthy and balanced, before the element of choice becomes eroded because we have inadvertently found ourselves in this dopamine-glutamate loop.

If you are struggling with behaviours, people, feelings (yes, this cycle applies to feelings too as the stronger the feeling, the stronger the dopamine response), or other things, I would encourage you to reach out to a healthcare professional in your area to explore assessment and treatment, if needed, to support you in improving your quality of life and health. You are worth it!

By Paige Abbott

Paige is a Registered Psychologist in the province of Alberta in Canada. She has specialized in Addiction Psychology for the past 9 years and has recently moved into private practice to bring this knowledge and expertise to the broader mental health community. She is the co-author of ‘Addiction is Addiction,’ it’s corresponding workbook, and ‘Love, the Drug.’ Thank you for reading.