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Have you ever wondered what keeps you going back to doing something agan and again even though you know is not good for you?

Well, I have just heard a podcast with Dr Anna Lembke – psychiatrist who has just released a book called Dopamine Nation.  She presents case studies of people with addictions of all kinds and talks us through the neuroscience behind the pleasure-pain balancing act.

When we do something pleasurable – say drinking for instance – dopamine is released in our brains.  We feel good, those first couple of sips, maybe the first bite of cake, or the first purchase – they make us feel really lovely, leaving us wanting more.  But, pleasure and pain are actually two sides of the same coin and our brain is on a balance seeking mission.  Homeostasis is its preferred state.

So after a shot of dopamine our brain needs to see-saw to the other side for counter balance.  Just briefly to restore homeostatis.  This is called the ‘opponent process reaction’.  However, this is when those gremlins come out telling us to ‘just have another drink’ or ‘have another biscuit’.  And we give in.  If you wait a short while the urge goes away, dopamine levels drop we are back in balance.

However, repeated exposure to the same or similar stimuli produces an ever weakening response and for shorter duration.  Meaning you need more and more for less and less return.  Anyone who has been drinking for a while or tried to diet will know that feeling of finishing a bottle and thinking – hey I feel fine.  Or eating a packet of biscuits and wondering where they all went.

We get so many opportunities to tickle our pleasure centre.  But what happens is that our brain gets so flooded with dopamine and there is no time to counter balance and the gremlins have set up camp.  Even waiting a while doesn’t restore our balance.  The see-saw has tipped towards pain and stays there.  It gets harder to experience pleasure and when you do, it lasts for less time.

This is when we find ourselves in a state of discord, with constant craving, insomnia and anxiety (hangxiety anyone?).  So what do we do?

This is what Dr Lembke calls ‘dopamine fasting’.  If you have tipped over to the pain side and ever increasing amounts of alcohol are just not hitting the mark, then it is about going cold turkey long enough for those gremlins to decamp and for your brain to return to balance.

How do you return to homeostasis:

  1. Find a pursuit that gives you meaning
  2. Focus on the challenge rather than the result
  3. Look for things that get you in the ‘flow state’
  4. Give yourself at least a month
  5. Sometimes you just have to sit with the discomfort until it passes.

The long term goal should be finding something that you find enjoyable for the sake of doing it.  Not for the result.  It should be about the journey – not the destination.  Something that you would do even if you were not good at it.  This would be yoga for me.  I am not a particularly dedicated student, but I keep coming back to the mat, because in that moment I feel connected and at peace.

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