WHITNEY CAIN, PHD

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the dopamine-kardashian link

I recently wrote about the brain’s response for protecting the body.  But in addition to the body, the brain works to protect mood, too.  One of its fastest avenues to feeling good is dopamine, a.k.a. “the Kim Kardashian of molecules.”  Drugs, sex, and rock and roll ignite dopamine, as well as foods with fat and sugar, gambling, shopping, and screen time.  (Draw your own conclusions about the dopamine-Kardashian link.)

Not surprisingly, feeling down or overwhelmed heightens our susceptibility to dopamine’s temptations.  When imagining dentist visits, smokers’ cigarette cravings go off the charts; binge eaters crave high fat, sugary foods when told they have to speak publicly; stressed out lab rats run for alcohol, heroin or whatever reward researchers have for them; and relapse among smokers, recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, and dieters increases with stress.

Even if we avoid the trouble dopamine can cause, it won’t keep us feeling good for long because it peaks then flat lines.  Moreover, dopamine easily depletes, so you have to make more and more of it to feel good.  Dopamine can make us feel better, but getting it and keeping it high isn’t always in our best interests.

So what’s our neurochemistry go-to in times of stress?  Try GABA and serotonin.  Now, activities boosting these neurotransmitters may not be as exciting to you as those boosting dopamine. . . . They include exercise, spiritual practices, reading, listening to soothing music, spending time with friends and family, massage, outdoor activities, meditation, yoga, self-compassion, creative hobbies, and play.  Furthermore, GABA and serotonin don’t flood our brains as quickly as their sexy cousin does.  But they are reliable, calming, and lasting, and regularly tapping them provides an important preventative physiological foundation for facing future stressors

I’m not suggesting you completely forgo dopamine (or your interest in the Kardashians).  Just recognize where dopamine (and Kimye) fit in your physiological functioning and wellbeing.  Then make intentional choices about those fits. 

References

Fowler, J.S., Volkow, N.D., Kassed, C.A., Change, L. (2007).  Imaging the addicted brain.  Science Practitioners Perspective, 3(2), 4-16.