It is a beautiful Sunday afternoon, you open the website of your favourite retailer and start piling clothes into your shopping basket. Do you need them? Not really. However, you feel like hunting – putting stuff into the basket, deleting and replacing. It feels good!
Perhaps it is a Monday evening and you had a really really difficult day. You reach for a glass of wine that will make things just a little better. After all, it really did when you felt not-so-good the day before…
What we are truly after is a pleasure we get from dopamine release. Any addictive substance or behaviour is our shortcut to brain’s reward centre. Nicotine, alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping, food – all fall into this category.
According to Harvard Medical School, the reward circuit in the brain includes areas involved with motivation and memory as well as with pleasure. Addictive substances and behaviours stimulate the same circuit – and then overload it. Repeated exposure to an addictive substance or behaviour causes nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens (the area of the brain involved in reward and reinforcement) and the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain involved in planning and executing tasks) to communicate in a way that couples liking something with wanting it, in turn driving us to go after it. That is, this process motivates us to take action to seek out the source of pleasure.
The brain is very adaptive, so the same amount of alcohol, drugs or clothes in your shopping basket soon won’t be enough to get your reward circuit neurons firing. Therefore, you will need to increase the dose of your “poison of choice”. Needless to say, this is not a sustainable way of getting your dopamine high.
How to get out of this vicious cycle?
Switch from acting habitually to acting deliberately – with the outcome in mind. In other words, seek long-term rewards rather than instant gratification.
A glass of wine tonight (you may think) will make you relax and cheer you up, however, it will add up to your waistline and toxicity. Buying three beautiful dresses will give you a moment of (so called) happiness, however, it may get you in debt. That cigarette (you think) will relieve your stress for 5 minutes, however, smoking will make you age faster among other things. Somewhere along the way we picked up these habits, and now they are our brain’s immediate “go-to”.
Remember, our brain is designed to protect us from pain and seek pleasure – to make sure we survive. Whatever you associate with pain, your brain will make you run away from. Whatever you associate with pleasure, it will make you seek.
It is acting with the outcome in mind. Think about your result.
- What do you want in terms of your health and fitness? If you want to rock that bikini or mankini, start relieving pressure after a hard day at work by exercising. When you are exercising your brain releases dopamine. Furthermore, it releases serotonin (your “happy” hormone) and endorphins (body’s natural pain killers). Here is your high reached by much healthier means.
- Food is addictive too! What should you eat? In order to contribute to your well-being, you should eat deliberately too. It means eat to nourish your body, not to trash it. Avoid all the most addictive foods such as sugars, refined grains, highly processed foods containing excitotoxins (i.e. crisps, packaged soups, cheese, smoked meats, sauces, fast foods etc.). These foods are made to be addictive, they are highly inflammatory and, eaten consistently, will make you fat, ill and miserable. You, literally, are what you eat.
- What do you want in terms of your career? If you want a higher position in the company or your own successful business, set yourself some short-term goals. Each week dedicate to achieving something that will take you one step closer to what you desire. Anticipation that comes with working towards completing a goal makes our brain release dopamine. Boom! Here is another high.
- What do you want in terms of your relationship? If you want a closer connection and more passion, forget about downing gin & tonics while binge-watching Netflix with your significant other. Learn something new together, have an honest conversation, make time for intimacy. During sex brain releases a ton of dopamine. Yes, sex is addictive, however, if your outcome is to connect and bring more passion into relationship, it won’t end up being just mechanics to you.
There is nothing wrong with having an occasional glass of wine, piece of cake or going shopping as long as we are doing it deliberately.
Create rules for yourself that really contribute to your long-term success. If you want that dress or a glass of wine, make it a reward rather than an instant gratification. Delay it. Allow yourself some time to “deserve” it.
Always strive for a long-term success rather than short-lived instant pleasure. Don’t let addiction (however mild you think it is) get in between you and your dreams.