Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in a World of Excess

It’s called the Plenty Paradox: an affluent environment with easy access to substances or behaviors perceived as pleasurable has actually been a key contributor to our national mental health crisis. So posits Dr. Anna Lembke, Medical Director of Addiction Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine, who has extensively researched and treated patients struggling to find the right balance in what she terms our “Dopamine Nation.”

Constant over-exposure to drugs, tobacco, alcohol, unhealthy foods, social media or other activities can cause a surge in dopamine, the primary neurotransmitter in our brain regulating our experience of pleasure, motivation and reward. “We all have a baseline level of dopamine, and there is enormous variability among individuals as to what triggers the release of additional dopamine in their brains,” she explains. Once that occurs, the brain will work to restore any deviation from neutrality.

Dr. Lembke explains: “The brain adapts to a pleasurable stimulus by tipping to pain, which is the comedown or aftereffect sensation. If we wait, this will pass and homeostasis is restored. But if we continue to use our drug or activity of choice, the initial stimulus of pleasure gets weaker and shorter, and the aftereffect of pain gets stronger and longer, changing the hedonic, or joy, setpoint over time. Now we need more not to feel good, but just to level the balance and feel normal…because when we’re in a state of dopamine deficit, classic symptoms of withdrawal such as anxiety, irritability, insomnia and depression and craving are experienced, along with a diminished capacity to enjoy previous pleasures.”

Noting that rates of anxiety and depression have increased most quickly over the last 20 years in the richest nations, Dr. Lembke says: “We’re living in a world where you can binge on almost anything – gaming, exercise, romance novels – because so much has become more reinforcing, potent, novel and accessible. It’s a real mismatch between the way we were initially wired to survive in an environment of scarcity and overwhelming danger, and our modern dopamine-rich ecosystem.”

An early intervention: the dopamine fast

With the caveat that her approach is not appropriate for all (e.g. those at risk of life-threatening withdrawal from opioids, or those who have unsuccessfully and repeatedly tried to stop on their own), Dr. Lembke shares the basics of her innovative “dopamine fast” to address compulsive overconsumption.

  • Recall the quantity and frequency of your drug of choice, be it video games, cell phone use or cannabis, over the past week, going backwards in time. Identify your initial motivation for overconsumption (to have fun, to solve a problem, etc.) and consider if you now need more to achieve your objective.
  • Abstain for 3 to 4 weeks. “Although it may feel as if the drug of choice is the only thing that gives you a break from difficult circumstances, realize that it may actually be making you feel worse, and the only way to know is to abstain completely for at least 3 weeks. Stopping sooner will mean you experience only the hard challenges of the first two weeks, and none of the rewards when homeostasis begins to be restored after that.”
  • Maintain. During abstinence, learn to recognize triggers and create literal and cognitive barriers to press the pause button between desire and consumption. “With social media for example, you can delete apps, turn off alerts and create tech-free spaces in the home. Make a plan for how to integrate the habit back into your life as a useful tool while staying balanced, such as scheduling ‘intermittent fasting’ from your digital devices until you’ve accomplished specific tasks.”
  • Hormesis. Dr. Lembke refers to a growing body of literature showing that exposure to initially painful experiences can result in increased resilience. “In our social media example, hormesis can be achieved by unplugging from our devices and doing things that may seem hard such as exercising, playing an instrument, writing a thank you note, even taking a cold shower,” she says. “Paying for the dopamine surge upfront may help boost motivation and positive mood without the big comedown.”

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