The dopamine epidemic

As touched on in my post Musings, metrics and mentors, d.o.s.e is an acronym for the four main happiness chemicals – dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins.

The better we know how we work, the better we know when and why were likely to feel these happiness chemicals, and how to influence them. Ever felt that tingle when your phone vibrates? that’s dopamine. You may have also noticed the euphoria you can occasionally feel with high intensity exercise, caused by a release of endorphins. These chemicals often work in tandem with each other, endorphins will prompt the release of dopamine, and it’s this cocktail of chemicals which is responsible for the “runners high”.

Today, let’s take a closer look at dopamine.

The dopamine epidemic

Dopamine – it’s everywhere, both in terms of how often its being transmitted within the body and the opportunities presented to catalyse them from the outside, all around our modern society.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter – a chemical that carries signals between neurons. It’s like an information courier.

Neurons that use dopamine as their primary neurotransmitter are most commonly found in the midbrain, which has an important role in motor function and managing sensory input. It impacts the way you move and feel. Getting the right amount is an important health consideration. Dopamine can influence everything from our motor functions, to how well we sleep, concentrate and retain information. It is vital in learning.

Dopamine is the motivation chemical, it enthuses us to keep seeking that feel good sensation. It’s strongly linked to anticipation, like when you get that tingle after your phone vibrates, or start to salivate as you raise that slice of pizza toward your mouth.

It pushed evolution forward by driving us to replicate acts in expectation of repeat sensations, forming habits.

It’s a very important player in the history of human survival. In part, thanks to this sensation, we are guided to choose flavoursome nutrient-rich foods, which would have helped early Homo Sapiens to build fat, insulating against lower temperatures, and aid in brain development.

Homo sapiens and a Neanderthal man
Image credit: Kevin Webb, The Natural History Museum, London

Sex, there may be nothing more intrinsic and rudimentary to our survival as a species. Again, it’s no surprise then that sex causes large releases of dopamine.

Music too has been reported in studies to raise levels of dopamine when listened to.

When thinking about what might be the most visceral and instinctive pleasurable sensory experience, undoubtably music and love making go hand in hand, at the top of most people’s list. So, throw on some Marvin Gaye and let’s get it on – we’re all sensitive people.

It’s our sensitivity that may support formation of self destructive habits. There’s truth to the saying; too much of a good thing. Dopamine is infamous for its role in addiction and compulsive behaviours and a major underlying factor in junk food abuse and obesity, with the multitude of health concerns it entails. Now, more than ever, a child’s rate of exposure to harmful consumables and unsolicited advertisement sits at an unprecedented level. With more and more time spent on mobile devices, this trend is only likely to increase. According to the World Health Organisation, 38 million children under the age of 5 years old were recorded as overweight or obese in 2019.

Imagine out loud – what springs to mind?; “ba da ba ba ba”?

Yes, those large corporate advertisers really know exactly how to tickle on those dopamine receptors, and I’m not lovin’ it.

Image credit: McDonald’s crime Organisation

As the barriers in society break down, and knowledge becomes public property, so too has risen the awareness of sex addiction. Pornography addiction, an unfortunate and hard avoided byproduct of the easy accessibility, scale and extremity of content options and endless niches available online.

We have all felt that short buzz of excitement when a notification pops up on our smartphone or laptop. The hand held device – possibly humankind’s greatest threat in the dopamine epidemic. The culture of instant gratification, accelerating our plastination. Now, with the tech giants monitoring our every online movement and the footprints we make near permanent, sophisticated and devious algorithms set neat little traps in an attempt to capture our attention and wallets.

It’s hard to miss the excruciating amount of advertising that surrounds us, on tv, radio, billboards and now, relentlessly, in the palm of your hand. If you use Facebook, you’ve probably noticed how eerily the adverts hide in plain sight – so quietly amongst your newsfeed like a tiger in the reeds. They’ll often stop you in the middle of a 15 second video to show you a 25 second advert.

They know all about the new pair of shoes you had searched recently, or about the hotels that were available in Sicily, after you had searched for flights to Palermo. Algorithms work the shadows – the mafiosos of the internet, shaking you down for every penny they can – these wise guys are very organised.

Just as video killed the radio star, online shopping has near decimating the high street retailer. The speed and ease we can purchase exactly what we want from the comfort of our sofa, makes basketing that next impulse buy, as easy and “click”. My personal guilty pleasure is eBay. It ticks all the boxes, the watching, the waiting, anticipation building, all for that timer count down in looming red. My heart pounds like a bunnies back legs as the clock reaches the 10 second mark. I place my bid – the rush! Win or lose, its exhilarating. I curl around my prizes, like a Arthurian dragon, atop the shimmering treasures guarded within its lair.

I excitedly receive my parcels, carefully opening and examining the contents, before placing it in the dark recesses of my cupboard, to take its place among the rest of the hoarded collection. Pokemon cards, retro video games, memorabilia of every type, oddities large and small, you name it, I’ve bought it. The most practical buys, of vintage clothing, merely decorate my closet, at the benefit of the 6 or 7 regular items I repeatedly dress in. The rest, it remains lost, floating deep within the cosmos, suspended in time. I had been acting out this sort of addictive behaviour since I had become an official adult, with newly acquired disposable (that’s a very subjective use of the word disposable…) income. I started buying all the stuff I wanted, but never had, when I was a kid. But, it wasn’t really about the items themselves, it was the thrill of the bid which had me hooked.

Lisa Courtney, Guinness World Record for Largest Pokemon collection.
Image credit: Paul Michael Hughes

Notable addiction risks include gambling, alcohol, recreational and prescription drugs and caffeine, among others. Whatever it may be, if it has an addictive quality, it’s likely dopamine reinforcing those bad habits.

So, what did I do about it and what can you?

I believe the most ravenously addictive, because of its subversiveness, scale, accessibility and market hold, is our attachment to smart phones and all the apps which play off our senses with their bright colours, lights and instant rewards, asserting repeat behaviours. I was also using the Facebook app, scrolling in autopilot, multiple times a day. It had breached outside the prescribed usual toilet browsing. I noticed, as I unlocked my phone, my thumb would unconsciously hover over to the Facebook tile, before I really thought about it, it was open, on screen – it’s reassuring glow let me know I would be entertained in the momentary. But, I perceived my gainful information intake as minuscule. I would get sucked into watching funny videos for tens of minutes, an hour, even multiple hours. I felt dirty afterwards, a sense of shame, in the waste of productive time and at the ease in which I let it happen – again.

I decided to make a change, and I moved Facebook into the archives, to the “App Library”, accessible but out of sight. It was still there if I wanted it, but it wasn’t in my eye line every time I opened my phone. Pretty simple, I know, I’m not preaching any profound self help, 7 step tutorial here. This is one small act for man, one giant leap for mankind. I know what a big difference this seemingly insignificant act made to my day to day. It was the acknowledgement that there was a problem, and taking (any) action, which is the important note. After sending it to timeout, initially, I would find that I would still look for it instinctively, then, when I remembered where I had put it and why, I had a chance to respond with the slow thinking part of my brain. When this happened, I checked notifications for no longer than 30 seconds, but very quickly I would find that I would choose to refrain completely. Now, I have it almost entirely phased it out. It’s not that social media isn’t without its uses – for me, it’s a very practical way to stay connected to friends and family over long distances. Now, I was able to do that without falling victim to the algorithms – wasting unnecessary time I could be using for more fulfilling things.

Small things can make a big difference.

My new disposition is to be present, acknowledging what is “real” and what is not. Asking, what can I see in front and around me – what is it I can touch and feel (not my smartphone – I know I will use it, but when if I do, to write notes or read articles, for example, I am thoughtful and deliberate. I question, what is important? Will it bring more quality to my experience or is it a distraction?). When I lust for those new hiking boots or that shiny road bike, I contrast my feelings toward my current boots or bicycle. Why am I coveting this new thing over my old one? I feel indifferent to my current gear, but the glossy pictures on the companies website tell me need the new product – the smiling models, they’re so happy, I want to be like them, I want that. Acknowledge the intrusion – “I recognise you”. Question, will this truly make me happy? Or, infinitely more probable – will my desires shift onto something else once I get it? The human condition is to never truly be satisfied. Instead ask, what can I get rid of and still be comfortable, safe and happy? What essentials increase my quality of life? Focus on them for a minute – we don’t replace our parents once they’ve served their purpose of raising us into adulthood, do we? The relationship may be repurposed – so we may get the privilege to dutifully serve them. There’s an immense beauty in age and character. You just need to look for it. The aesthetics of torn jeans or aged leather offer timeless style in contemporary fashion. The Japanese have a word for the beauty found in imperfection – Wabi-Sabi 侘寂 – this could be found in repaired porcelain or the broken and craggy contours of the natural environment. Why then, in the modern world, are we so quick to replace things that have served us well, at the drop of a hat?

My trusty cap – plenty of life in her yet.

Too much dopamine is reported as being linked to mood fluctuations, aggression and poor impulse control. Beyond external influences, it has been correlated with ADHD and may lead to or be caused by mental illness’, such as mania, hallucinations and schizophrenia.

Having low levels of dopamine can make you less excited about things, kill libido and motivation. It’s linked to some mental illnesses including, depression, psychosis, and schizophrenia and the onset of the development of Parkinson’s disease.

Some ‘go to’ ways we can regulate dopamine and encourage the positive health benefits include; eating well – plenty of protein, less saturated fats, and incorporated probiotics, regular exercise, getting outside in the sunlight (why not kill two birds with one stone? Road running is as easy as slipping on some trainers and going for it), listening to music and making sure to get enough deep REM sleep. If you’re still needing a boost, you may consider supplements. Your body requires several vitamins and minerals to create dopamine, such as iron, folate, niacin and vitamin b6.

Most importantly, remember to talk to someone if you’re feeling down, or if you know someone who may need support, reach out. Don’t regret words not spoken.

Look out for the upcoming blog, where I’ll be pulling apart and looking into the other D.O.S.E chemicals, trying to understand what’s happening inside our bodies.

What is life without community? I would love to connect with other nicecissists out there. Seeing as you’ve got this far, that’s probably you! Reach out, drop me a message and let me know what you think in the comments, and of course, give me a follow for more – nice!

2 thoughts on “The dopamine epidemic

  1. Pingback: Happy chemicals

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