How to get healthier dopamine highs

Humans are not big fans of the status quo. We crave new experiences and rewards, whether by finding a new meal, work or creative project. Such diverse behaviors are fueled by a brain chemical called dopamine. Call it the driving molecule.

However, in the modern world, dopamine has a dark side. Substances that give us great pleasure, from coffee to cocaine, can raise dopamine levels too high. And digital technologies, such as video games and social media, can affect us. similar.

Because our brains are wired to restore balance, peak dopamine levels can be followed by a painful crash, marked by increased cravings. Repeated infatuation can lead to tolerance, addiction, and ultimately anxiety and depression.
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But we can break this downward spiral by increasing the amount of healthy dopamine. Here’s how to do it.

Watch for Coercive Behaviors

Awareness is the first step. Anna Lembke, a professor and psychiatrist at Stanford, suggests tracking your daily activities to see if they turn into compulsive behaviors with negative consequences. An example can be in your hands right now; smartphones provide “24/7 digital dopamine,” writes Lembke in her 2021 book, Dopamine Nation. According to a recent report, people spend a third of their day check their phone.

Addictive behavior is a spectrum; Even if an activity doesn’t meet the scientific criteria for addiction, says Lembke, too much good can still undermine happiness. If your dopamine levels are consistently rising, the brain is looking for balance, which may respond by reducing the number of dopamine receptors, ultimately reducing motivation and pleasure of any kind.

In her book, Lembke writes about a patient obsessed with online shopping. In the end, the new packages lost their thrill, and he piled on huge debts – but couldn’t stop buying. Instead of taking pills, Lembke prescribes a whole month without online shopping. The man accepted her challenge. His compulsions were gradually released, and he began to feel the “natural climax” again, such as the eagerness to see his friends.

“Not everyone needs 30 days,” says Lembke. “I have seen people abstain from voting for a week and reset their reward path.” On the other hand, these breaks are not suitable for everyone. People often need more aggressive interventions, such as medication. “But for many people,” says Lembke, “abstinence is the starting point. ”

Nora Volkow, a psychiatrist and dopamine researcher who heads the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, says that extended rest from addiction could be theoretically effective, but studies Research must explore whether this approach actually reduces undesirable behaviors in the long run. “Individuals are more likely to succeed if they have social support systems and access to healthier activities that raise dopamine and motivate them,” says Volkow.

Get some healthy pain

Good alternative to unhealthy positions that take full advantage of the seesaw effects of dopamine. Peaks of dopamine can lead to painful lows with cravings, but the reverse is also true: some initial painful experiences boost motivation and an upbeat mood – minus the crash. This effect is called hormesis. Robert Sapolsky, a biologist at Stanford who wrote about dopamine in his 2017 book, says: Behave.

An example of a wasp is a cold shower, says Lembke. More research is needed, but some studies show that the body responds to cold water to cause pain by modulating molecules that make it feel good. including dopamine. “These are modest natural rewards without a big comedy,” she said.

Kenneth Kishida, a neuroscientist in Wake Forest, who study of dopamine fluctuations, get hormesis through camping trips. Is not glamping, he states, but will do it rudimentary in the state park in a few days. This involved cold showers, intermittent eating and sleeping in a small tent. “It was really hard, but I came back feeling refreshed,” he explains.

Camping requires exercise, another stressor. When methamphetamine addicts were cross-trained for one hour, three times per week, their dopamine receptors get a raise. Alexis, a 29-year-old medical assistant from Brooklyn, has used phenylcyclohexyl piperidine, or PCP, to numb feelings of grief after loved ones have died. (Alexis requested that only her name be used for privacy reasons.) She was on a show run by House of Odyssey called Run for your life, in which people recovering from drug addiction train for the Central Park marathons. “Exercise gives me energy,” says Alexis. “It’s adrenaline.”

Exercise is also shown to guard dopamine receptors as we age. Otherwise, they dip about ten% every decade.

Be careful with combinations of pleasures

Just be careful about combining exercise too often with other pleasurable stimuli, such as texting and playing your favorite music. “We need a period of time when we don’t stimulate our brains,” says Lembke. “We need to experience pain to appreciate joy.” But Wendy Suzuki, an NYU neuroscientist who studies exercise, sees music as a great motivator. “Without music, most people wouldn’t enjoy exercise enough to do it regularly,” she says.

Volkow warns about another thing people use to boost their performance: caffeine. It disrupts the brain’s balance mechanism, preventing the removal of dopamine receptors in response to dopamine spikes. Shows. Many video players drop energy drinks, making the game even more appealing. “You have to be careful to avoid compulsive gaming,” says Volkow.

Instead of ditching your favorite combinations, try using them less often. Some experts suggest This approach is based on a principle known as reward prediction error: we are motivated by pleasant surprises. If we give ourselves the same type of high pleasure combination all the time, it becomes boring and predictable, lowering dopamine levels in the long run. But if you indulge infrequently, the novelty never goes away. Tolerance will not increase.


Another tool for a healthy dopamine boost is meditation. Eric Garland, Distinguished Professor at the University of Utah’s College of Social Work, has developed Strengthening Mindfulness Oriented Recovery program or ADD, worked well opioid abuse, chronic pain and emotional distress. In One study published in February in JAMA lingerie45% of MORE participants were able to stop abusing opioids after nine months of follow-up, nearly doubling the percentage of people benefiting from standard psychotherapy. MORE calls for daily meditation and mindful enjoyment of sunsets and other “natural pleasures.” These activities increase dopamine levels without the spikes caused by drugs and other addictions, Garland says.

MORE also involves teaching addicts to deal with negative emotions. “Life is about joy and pain,” says Garland. “Mindfulness allows us to grasp both aspects of human existence and accept them deeply.”

Boosting dopamine through flow states

“We live in a culture that obsess over pain,” says Lembke. When individuals accept that some pain in life is inevitable, they often enjoy happier and deeper satisfaction. This is illustrated by flow states.

Flow occurs when individuals get so caught up in a task that they lose track of themselves, coincides with a slow but steady increase in dopamine, says Rian Doris., co-founder of Flow Research Group, the neuroscience study of flow states. To clear the flow, however, we must leave our comfort zones, which involve pain and struggle, says Doris.

Paul Bloom, University of Toronto psychologist, author of Sweet spot, a book on the value of selected suffering. “It’s easier to sit on the sofa and watch Netflix.”

Let’s say you want to write a memoir. Mastering the task, says Doris, requires arduous, deliberate practice and “requires intense distraction with activities that stimulate rapid dopamine release.”

But if you persevere, you can eventually reach the flow while arranging the chapters. Another example: training for a big race. Last November, Alexis ran in the New York City Marathon. She said: “Running makes me lose my memory. “The more you exercise, the easier it gets.”

Whenever dopamine is involved, moderation is key. Doris recommends, don’t spend too much time on your work, even on your work. For some, Lembke says, “work has become an anesthetic like anything else.” Take breaks. When used at times, social media and video games can be great mediums.

“I wouldn’t take flow as a cure for your Instagram addiction,” Bloom says. “It’s just another thing in life worth pursuing. We all want to have fun, but we also want meaningful activities, even when they’re caught up in struggle. “

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