Can You Be Addicted to Dopamine?

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Pleasure is something we all need in life. At times, though, we can get too focused on it, or on specific activities that feel pleasurable to us. They can get out of control, and may even lead to addiction. This is because we can get hooked on the good feelings we're flooded with when we conduct pleasurable activities.

Those feelings are often referred to as a "high," which is something people are known to "chase."

We'll take a look at the brain chemical dopamine and examine how it can be a slippery slope for some people in relation to addiction. First, you'll learn what dopamine is. Then, we'll examine the pleasurable activities that can provide it, why they can potentially lead to problems, and what behaviors you can follow to prevent getting too dependent on the feelings that accompany a surge in dopamine.

What Is Dopamine?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. That means it's a chemical that sends signals inside our brains. Neurotransmitters have a wide assortment of functions, and dopamine's function centers around the pleasure and reward areas of our brains.

It's known as one of the "pleasure chemicals" because of that fact. Other feel-good chemicals include serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins.

When you do something that you like the feeling of, your brain sends a signal of pleasure to your brain. Then, you associate that activity with the feeling of pleasure. When that happens, it can become difficult to separate the physical occurrence from the feeling of pleasure it gave you.

It's normal to then remember that experience as something that provided you with good feelings.

Dopamine is important in our everyday lives outside of feelings of pleasure. It plays a role in everything from motivation to mood to memory. Having a healthy level of dopamine is necessary, and if your body isn't producing enough, it can lead to problems such as depression and insomnia.

Activities That Release Dopamine

Basically, anything you do that feels good can release dopamine in your brain. Some of these things are good ways to naturally ensure you have sufficient dopamine levels, are some aren't. These are some examples of activities that release dopamine:

Risky Behaviors Associated With Dopamine

You may have heard the saying that it's possible to get too much of a good thing. That idea is why dopamine can potentially become a problem for someone.

Let's look at what becoming dependent on the rush of dopamine can involve.

Sex Addiction

For one example, getting dependent on having sex can lead to sex addiction. Because it makes us feel good, we may seek it out in ways that are unsafe for us. This can involve having unprotected sex, having sex with someone who is a stranger and might be dangerous, or not taking care of the responsibilities you have in life because you are busy pursuing sex.

Food-Related Disorders

Another example of risky behavior that can be based in the urge for dopamine is eating. On the one hand, we have to eat! We can't survive without it. And it's completely normal to want to eat foods that taste good to us.

However, eating can get out of control and become a food addiction, in which a person's relationship with food becomes more about eating to feel good than eating to stay alive.

Alcohol and Substance Use Disorders

A third example of how the quest for dopamine can lead to problems is with alcohol and recreational drugs. These substances release dopamine in the most straightforward way of all, with drugs like cocaine directly flooding our brains with it.

Drug addiction and alcoholism can be life-threatening and can have terrible impacts on the lives of both the person with the addiction and everyone else they are close to.

In addition to the above, there are countless other dopamine-oriented activities that can lead to major problems and risky behaviors. They can be as big and life-altering as losing your financial savings due to gambling, or as temporary as exercising too much and obtaining a minor injury from overusing parts of your body.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Is Dopamine Addiction Possible?

It is not technically possible to get addicted to dopamine. It occurs naturally in our bodies, and we can't directly take it as a food or drug. However, it is completely possible to get addicted to any activity that increases our dopamine levels.

Even though we aren't directly addicted to dopamine itself, we may be addicted to an activity because of the dopamine it releases in our brains.

Ways to Avoid Dopamine Dependence

Although it's important to perform activities that release dopamine, for the sake of feeling good regularly, it is also vital that you don't become dependent on that release.

It might be a shorter journey than you'd think to go from simply enjoying a pleasurable act on occasion and being hooked on it in a way that is harmful to your life (or the lives of others).

Below are some ideas to help you have a healthy relationship with dopamine and help avoid dependence.

Activity Boundaries

In order to avoid getting too much of a good thing, it can be helpful to have boundaries. For example, if you love to exercise but you find yourself getting hurt because you're overdoing it, set up your workout plan a week ahead of time.

Review your plan and consider confirming with a professional trainer that it is a moderate exercise plan and not one that risks you getting injured because it's too strenuous.

As far as how to set your boundaries, if you have a good memory you can simply think ahead and schedule out how long you'll spend with different activities or how much of them you'll do.

If you want to feel more accountable to yourself than that, or your memory isn't great, use a journal to write down your boundaries or send an email to yourself.

Nerve-Calming Practices

Making sure you are getting enough relaxation in your day can help to combat the feeling that you need to perform dopamine-boosting activities more often than what is considered healthy.

Any self care practice can be calming to your nerves, as can very simple activities like deep breathing.

Conduct Activities Mindfully

Another great way to keep tabs on yourself and avoid getting too dependent on the release of dopamine is to make yourself more aware of what you do.

Mindfulness is the act of making a big point of paying attention in the moment, day to day, rather than functioning on autopilot all the time.

Before you set out to do something you enjoy that you feel you might be getting dependent on, check in with yourself.

Assess how you're feeling, what you're thinking, and any concerns you may have about your behavior. Then as you go along with that activity, continue checking in with yourself to make sure everything is feeling calm and not like you're getting too into the "high" of the act.

What to Do If Things Get Out of Control

Addiction is complex, and science is still uncovering why it affects some people more than others. Even though you can't be directly addicted to dopamine, you can get addicted to any activity that releases it.

If you've tried to mitigate your behavior and you haven't been successful, there are many people who can help you.

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3 Sources
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  2. Cleveland Clinic. Drug Addiction. Published September 3, 2020.

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