Exploring often-overlooked culprits fueling depression and anxiety
In today's overstimulated, yet under-engaged world, you've probably become increasingly aware of phrases like "dopamine-hit," "screen dependency," or even "dopamine addiction"; but let's set the record straight--dopamine isn't something you can actually become addicted to. Like serotonin, adrenaline, cortisol, oxytocin, etc, it's a chemical produced by your brain to elicit particular responses at the appropriate times. Strictly speaking, "dopamine addiction" doesn't exist. So why does this catch-phrase get thrown around so much? Let's break it down.
Get to know your brain chemistry
Dopamine, contrary to popular belief, is not a "pleasure" hormone, it's a "motivation" hormone. Dopamine and Serotonin often become conflated because they both work on what is known as the "reward pathway." However, dopamine is what motivates us to pursue reward, the inner voice that tells us "I want that, go get it," and serotonin is what tells us "I've had my fill, you can stop now."
Dopamine, unlike serotonin, is excitatory, meaning that when receptors become excited, they want more. The next neuron in the system becomes excited (Post-synaptic receptor activation). To put it simply, your brain asks for more. There's a big issue with this though; when these neurons become chronically overstimulated, neuronal cell death occurs, meaning there are fewer and fewer receptors available over time. In other words, you need more and more of the substance or behavior to elicit the same effect. We'll explore this more in depth later.
Serotonin must be bioavailable in our brains in order for us to attain the "I've had my fill, you can stop now" feeling, also commonly referred to as contentment. But a problem we see with serotonin is that it can become less available in the brain if cortisol and/or dopamine levels are chronically high. This is often overlooked in the serotonin model of depression. Because serotonin, cortisol, and dopamine all work together on the reward pathway, it is impossible to blame depression or anxiety all on simple deficiency of serotonin. Thankfully, the serotonin model of depression is rapidly changing as doctors increasingly understand the relationship within this cornucopia of brain chemicals better.
Cortisol, also known as the "stress" hormone, is essential to motivation as well. Cortisol is very heavily dictated by immutable circadian rhythms set in our far-back lizard brains. You might think you've got nature fooled by being a night owl, but defying these rhythms has been shown to increase chances of suffering from depression, anxiety, and many cancers, because it disturbs normal cortisol production. When our circadian rhythms are in harmony, our brains secrete cortisol at the appropriate times--such as early in the morning to prompt us to rise. Cortisol also spikes to help us stay alert in times of high stress (or, more problematically in our modern lives, stays chronically elevated in times of constant low-grade stress.) Chronically elevated cortisol--whether caused by life stress, blue light exposure from screens, night owl tendencies, or a diet high in refined foods-- disrupts the normal function of the reward pathway, and can cause anxiety when paired with elevated dopamine, and/or depression when paired with low serotonin.
How modern pleasures affect your brain chemistry
Like any other animal, humans are wired to pursue food, water, shelter, sex, and safety, among other things. There's nothing inherently wrong with seeking reward--it's fundamental to our survival. The problem arises when rewards are abundant, and we begin to seek them rapidly, insatiably, even compulsively. Our modern lifestyles abound with pleasures like junk food, social media, alcohol, illicit drugs, porn, all smacking us with levels of dopamine overwhelming to a brain system that hasn't evolved to adapt. Like the infinite scroll, there is no end to the amount of reward we can obtain quickly, effortlessly, and in a lot of cases, in abundance. This is simply not how our brains are wired to handle reward.
It's not a stretch to frame things as such: our ancestors sought reward for survival, modern humans seek reward for pleasure. We are conditioned to expect reward quickly, in quantity and quality far beyond our survival needs. When we crave fast food, we aren't fundamentally seeking nutrition to stay alive--or we would just eat broccoli. We no longer have to run from lions or slay mastodons to survive, we can simply order a dripping hot mess of nacho fries from Doordash packed with enough dopamine to light up our brains like a Christmas palm tree in Miami. It's no longer a life or death pursuit--we don't even have to get off our ass. It has little to do with staying alive, it's a comfort-seeking behavior--it's now about pleasure.
Many modern rewards have little to do with survival, but instead with pleasure-seeking. Substances and behaviors like fast food, cocaine, alcohol, looking at people's perfect lives on instagram, checking all day to see who liked your post, mindless entertainment, video games, fantasizing over the hot girl on the screen, are all examples of a kind of "hyperreality" that make our everyday experiences-- the real ones-- pale in comparison. This is a double-edged sword-- not only does it make our true existence seem depressing in contrast--you are never going to look as good as that ultra-edited bikini model, you aren't going to feel good when you're at work on Monday morning after that coke bender, and you sure as hell don't EVER want to eat broccoli--but also, your brain experiences steeper and quicker peaks and drops in dopamine with every instance. The greater the reward and the more easily you obtained it, the harder the fall. More dopamine peaks equal more dopamine trenches.
I talk a great deal of smack on screens and social media--and this is perhaps why: this is arguably the easiest, most instantaneous way we as modern humans can obtain reward. All you have to do is pull your phone out of your pocket and BAM! Dopamine everywhere. (Cortisol too, and remember what happens when you pair cortisol and dopamine.) This is the quickest and easiest way for you to experience a peak-- and consequently, a drop. Have you ever considered what happens to your baseline level of dopamine when peaks and drops happen so frequently? Have you ever noticed the drive to look at your phone feels, almost... compulsive? How long can you handle the discomfort of being bored before you grab that wicked little pocket sidekick and blow those neuroreceptors up? And just why ARE you so uncomfortable being bored?
Understanding the cycle of addiction
Let's look at the fundamental structure of addiction: craving, tolerance, withdrawal.
When we have a craving, we are motivated to satisfy it. When we satisfy this craving more and more over time (if it is a pleasure, above and beyond a survival need) it becomes less satisfying, and we need more of it to feel the same amount of satisfaction. This is known as developing a tolerance. With increased attempts to satisfy this moving goal, the baseline level of happiness we experience between instances of reward become more and more painful. The lower our dopamine drops, the more pain we feel at baseline. This is known as withdrawal, and completes the addiction cycle. When we are in full-blown addiction, we feel greater and greater discomfort without the reward, can tolerate less and less time between rewards, and will more and more compulsively seek to escape this discomfort.
In other words, the more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you become.
In the words of Andrew Huberman, professor and neuroscientist at Stanford University, "Addiction is a progressive narrowing of the things that bring you pleasure. Happiness is a progressive expansion of the things that bring you pleasure. The former emerges passively. The latter takes work."
Dopamine overload eventually leads to dopamine depletion
Any easy way to visualize how dopamine overload leads to depletion is to think of a cup of coffee. Let's say you have a cup of coffee in your hands, and you've just put in a bit of milk. You swirl the cup around gently to encourage the mixture. There are natural little rises and falls in the placement of liquid in the cup. This is how dopamine should work in your brain. Now imagine you get impatient, swirling the cup a little more aggressively. The coffee will rise up higher in the cup, perhaps touching the brim before dropping back down. Now, if you're really impatient and begin gyrating your cup with fury, the coffee will spill over the brim with every movement. Every turn of your wrist causes the wavelike movement to increase in size until coffee is spilling out and decreasing the volume in the vessel. Eventually, you have barely any coffee left and your cup is depleted. This is what happens to dopamine over time when the peaks and drops become too great.
While in the throes of dopamine overload, we may find ourselves having more difficulty sleeping, becoming more irritable, reaching more for distraction, and having difficulty with impulse control. These are just a few symptoms, which eventually lead into depletion. When our dopamine stores become depleted, we feel a lack of motivation to pursue meaningful goals in life, we choose our screens over meaningful connections and events, and eventually, we become so unmotivated and depressed that it's difficult to move forward in life.
How do you know if this is happening to you?
Signs of dopamine overload include:
-difficulty remembering things, even when you just put them into your brain
-inability to concentrate on reading, finding yourself reading the same sentence over and over
-difficulty focusing on a task
-boredom, inability to sit quietly with your thoughts
-impulse to distract yourself in moments of boredom
-discomfort in the absence of background noise
-trouble falling asleep or waking up too early
-increased propensity to eat compulsively
-increased appetite for junk food
-increased desire to seek alcohol or illicit drugs
-brain fog or constantly running, disjointed thoughts
Now, the counterpart. I mentioned dopamine trenches, and I wish I were exaggerating. Like they say: the steeper the climb, the harder the fall.
This is what dopamine depletion looks like:
-lack of motivation in once important pursuits
-fatigue and grogginess
-difficulty engaging with others
-sadness, depression, and feeling lost
-lack of enjoyment from once enjoyable activities
-decreased sex drive
-increased propensity to eat compulsively
-increased appetite for junk food
The difference between pleasure and happiness
"If you don’t know the difference between pleasure and happiness, you are sadly mistaken; you will be led astray, and it will do a number on you."
-Dr. Robert Lustig, author of "The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains"
Dr. Lustig leaves us with some very powerful considerations in his 7 differences between pleasure and happiness:
1. Pleasure is short term, happiness is long term
2. Pleasure is visceral, happiness is ethereal
3. Pleasure is taken, happiness is given
4. Pleasure is achieved alone, happiness is achieved in social groups
5. Pleasure can be achieved with substances, happiness cannot
6. Pleasure in the extreme is addictive, happiness is not
7. Pleasure is dopamine, happiness is serotonin
Every time you engage in addictive behaviors, no matter how small, you are choosing pleasure over happiness. These small choices build up over time to equal major discontentment. Sometimes it may not seem this way--maybe meditation or even just sitting in boredom does not SEEM to make you feel content, while social media calms your discomfort. Why is this? Contentment takes practice, pleasure does not. But only contentment leads to happiness.
Every time you choose to scroll instagram while your kids play at the park, you choose an easy--albeit small-- pleasure over the true joy of being a present parent. When you choose to stay inside and watch Netflix on a rare sunny PNW day, you've just missed out on the rejuvenation that arises from communing with nature. The pattern continues--you continue to sacrifice sacred, irreplaceable moments with fleeting, meaningless distractions. Contentment comes from choosing to appreciate exactly what is in front of you without the need to run to a comfort tool.
The best way to overcome the cycle is to learn the difference between pleasure and happiness. Unfortunately, because they both feel good, these terms have become synonymous; the truth is they aren't the same thing at all. Pleasure-seeking only demands more of the same, while happiness lets you relax and enjoy the moment. While you can overdose on pleasure, you can't overdose on happiness. Happiness comes from the more ethereal, primal aspects of being a human, and those things can't be replicated or replaced.
Our brains were wired to get joy from making eye contact with other humans, feeling varied surfaces on our feet, engaging in rapid eye movement as we scan our environment while walking; in other words, our brains NEED varied sensory input and mindful alertness for most of the day in order for our brain chemistry to work as it should--we need these things to be happy. Like with circadian rhythms, you can't "outsmart" your primal brain chemistry. You need to go outside. You need to have meaningful, in-person social interactions. You need to expose your skin to natural light. You need to be bored sometimes. You need to practice sleep hygiene. You need to rest, recover, play, think, not think, laugh, have meaningful pursuits, unplug, exercise, eat real food, dance, introspect, self-improve, and so many other things that fall to the wayside when you're constantly seeking distraction.
How can I recover from dopamine overload or depletion?
If you find yourself in the vicious cycle of "dopamine addiction," you may need to detox from the habits and behaviors that got you here. If, in reading this, you'd rather chew off your own foot, that's a hefty sign that you're deep in the throes of addiction. Resistance is a normal reaction, and should be a sign that this is something you need to do for yourself.
A dopamine detox can be viewed as a cognitive behavioral therapy strategy that helps you identify and self-regulate unhelpful and impulsive behaviors.
Below are 10 rules for living a life of balance and contentment. If you can manage these habits for 30 days, I guarantee you will begin to come back to your true self and feel even just a little bit better. But I would bet that you'll feel much better than that. You may find that you want to adopt these habits indefinitely once you see what they can do for your mental well-being.
10 rules for living a life of balance and contentment
Screen-free walk every day No headphones either. Make it a point to observe as much as you can with your 5 senses. How many things can you see? What different smells do you smell? What can you hear? How is your body interacting with the world around you?
Screen-free meals Again, no headphones. No reading either. Just eat. With each bite, notice the different flavors you are tasting, explore the textures, and just savor your meal. Take a minute to appreciate how fortunate you are to eat everyday. Express gratitude for all the people who worked to produce the foods you get to eat.
Start a news diet Focus instead on your circle of influence, and how your circle of concern can be more aligned with what you can change in the world around you. Being a responsible adult does not entail stressing about things far beyond your control, or being told what to fear.
Eliminate hyper-palatable foods Aim to cook most, if not all, of your meals at home, even if this sometimes means throwing stuff into tupperware for later. Avoid consuming processed and hyper-palatable items--meaning, food and drinks that are engineered to make it difficult for you to stop eating them.
Limit your caffeine, alcohol, and sugar There's nothing wrong with a cup of coffee in the morning, but keep it to 1-2 cups in the morning, no more. 1-2 drinks per week is a perfectly reasonable amount to drink without jeopardizing your health. Avoid added sugars. Stick to water as much as possible.
Have at least one meaningful social interaction per day Have one, in depth, meaningful conversation per day, in which you fully listen, make eye contact, and retain respectful attention. This can be with a person you're comfortable with. Bonus: say something as simple as saying "good morning" to a stranger every day.
Limit your discretionary screen time to one hour per day Even less is better. This includes ALL texts, social media, email, TV, video games, etc.
Turn off notifications For everything except texts and calls. You really don't need to know when somebody likes your post. Bonus: keep your phone on "do not disturb" for most of the day. Place emergency contacts (like spouse, kids' school) in favorites so you can rest assured you won't be missing emergency communication.
Schedule your email checking Set 3 times of the day, at most, to check email. Unless you are waiting on a literal life-and-death email, there is very little that can't wait a few hours.
No phone in the bedroom Absolutely keep your phone in a different room, not just in a drawer. Get an alarm clock. Checking the time when you can't sleep is in no way helpful, but is in fact anxiety-inducing at best, and a time-stealing distraction hole at worst.
If you struggle with dopamine addiction, realize it's not some shortcoming of your personality or biology. The human brain was not engineered to handle the hyperreality we find ourselves living in today. Entire industries were created to generate billions of dollars by highjacking your impulse control, your time, your attention. You are not to blame, but you ARE responsible for creating the life you want to live in. The only way forward is to resist the forces stealing your time and your life away from you.
You are worth fighting for the life you want to look back on.