Dopamine is a monoamine neurotransmitter and a hormone that is made in your adrenal glands and also released by your brain’s hypothalamus.
For a long time, dopamine has been known as the “pleasure chemical” and the “feel-good hormone,” sending chemical messages between brain cells in a way that creates the feeling of reward in you for doing an activity. The feeling of pleasure gives you a sense of motivation to seek out for more. But there’s another side to dopamine that you’re about to learn.
As humans, our brains are hard-wired to do things that release dopamine in our reward system. It is in our nature, from the evolutionary standpoint. Our reward system, in which dopamine plays a big role, is designed to reward us for doing things to survive, like eating, drinking, sex, and competing with others to survive. When we do something pleasurable, our brains let out a big hit of dopamine, making us feel good and motivated to do more of the activity that gives us pleasure. This is the very reason why most people get easily addicted to junk food and sugar. Eating these things triggers the brain’s reward system, releasing dopamine and making people feel pleasure and encouraging them to repeat the experience.
Commercials and marketing can be very effective because they appeal to your internal reward system. Even though you might perfectly know that what is being marketed is really not good for your health, they can trigger desire and cravings. It’s just how our brains work!
However, understanding how your brain works in this way can really help you to seek better alternatives for pleasure and reward. There are plenty of healthy things that come with an inherent rewarding feeling (drinking water when you’re thirsty, taking a shower or hot tub, sleeping when you’re tired, getting a massage or rubbing your own muscles, listening to music) while other activities can be learned to be linked to pleasure like healthy eating, exercising or physical activity, stretching, meditation, and replacing unhealthy foods/drinks with healthy ones.
Pause and consider some ways you are willing to take action and help your brain reward you for doing helpful and healthy activities for yourself.
Let’s now look a bit more closely at some dopamine research relating to avoidance behavior.
Researchers from the University of Maryland and School of Medicine have found a direct link between dopamine and avoidance (behavior related to pain and fear).
Apparently, we humans get a dopamine reward by avoiding pain and fear. This makes so much sense when you think about why we avoid things that are unknown, or why we might struggle to form new habits we are trying to create, or even why you might be prone to procrastinate…your brain is wired to get a reward by avoiding things that you fear or think could harm you! And the unknown or “new” is considered to be scary (on some level) to your brain.
Consider how you might use this info to your advantage. Not only can you choose to treat yourself with compassion if you are struggling to take on new healthy habits (or keep up with certain habits), but consider how you can bring in some fun and familiarity to reinforce the changes you are trying to make. You might try a “dopamine sandwich” where you do something naturally rewarding right before doing the new “scary” habit and then do something naturally rewarding right after. This will help your brain to associate reward with the new behavior. Visualization can really help with this! You can imagine something really fun–like going on a great vacation, get that dopamine flowing, and then go for a walk or make a delicious and healthy meal (maybe even playing some music while you do this) and then afterward you give yourself a foot massage or listen to some comedy. Use that dopamine so it helps you live your best life!
It is my passion to work with people like you whose health symptoms are getting in the way of you living life fully and with a sense of freedom in your body. I can help you to regain your health so you can feel great and free to enjoy life fully.
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Until next time, I’m wishing you unstoppable health!