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Relationship Between Instant Dopamine and Addiction and Earned Dopamine

The Relationship Between Instant Dopamine and Addiction and Earned Dopamine and Recovery

Reading Time: 4 Minutes

What do drugs, alcohol, sex, social media, and food all have in common? They all create the same “instant feel good” response in our brains. Fueled by the neurotransmitter dopamine, pleasurable activities significantly impact our brains’ reward and motivation center. Dopamine is a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) released from your nucleus accumbens, a tiny structure within your basal ganglia in your brain. 

Although dopamine can create euphoria and be healthy when “earned” and balanced, it has a dark side. Substances that give us instant pleasure, from coffee to cocaine, can cause your nucleus accumbens to go into overdrive and raise dopamine levels too high. Because our brains are wired to restore balance, peak levels of dopamine can be followed by painful crashes to baseline, marked by cravings for more of the substance or behavior. Indulging in “instant gratification” repeatedly can lead to tolerance and, ultimately, addiction.

The history of dopamine, motivation, and reward

The nucleus accumbens is a powerhouse, and dopamine regulation is one of the most powerful chemicals in our brain, and it drives motivation and pleasure. Before modern life, humans were hunters and gatherers who had to search for and work for basic needs such as food, water, and shelter. Human existence was historically very difficult as we had to fight famine, disease, and predators. Even the most basic behaviors necessary for living often require enormous and sustained levels of energy and motivation. This motivation and reward demanded a robust dopamine circuit just for survival. 

Hunting our food was rewarding and created an “earned” sense of euphoria quickly followed by hunger tied to a dopamine crash to baseline, which spiked our motivation and drive to hunt again, fueling this healthy cycle of “earned” dopamine. Fast forward to modern times, where we live in a world of abundance rather than scarcity and rarely have to “earn” our dopamine. We are surrounded by a surplus of food, drugs, alcohol, social media, and many other forms of “instant gratification” that results in a “fire hose of dopamine.”

What is “instant” dopamine?

When we have access to “instant” dopamine at our fingertips in the forms of sugar, drugs, alcohol, television, sex, or social media, our brains become re-wired and desensitized to such huge and frequent amounts of dopamine that we need more just to feel normal or not in pain. We are in a “dopamine deficit state” and we are no longer able to find joy in modest activities so we continue to use drugs and alcohol to seek a “dopamine high”, creating a sense of emptiness, irritability, depression, and insomnia.

Instant Dopamine and Earned Dopamine relationship

What is “earned” dopamine?

Earned dopamine is obtaining dopamine through effort which requires motivation. Examples of “earned” dopamine include forming intimate relationships with others, which requires time, patience, grace, sacrifice, and energy that cannot be bought or derived from substances. Effortful rewards such as career advancement, personal fitness, mastering hobbies, and a lifestyle encouraging ongoing learning and personal growth are healthy ways to “earn dopamine.” These all require motivation, discipline, and sacrifice, and the earned rewards are pleasurable and can create a fulfilling life of happiness rather than chasing temporary hedonistic instant gratification.

Dopamine fast

Historically, a dopamine fast was based on cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of psychotherapy commonly used in addiction treatment. The foundation of this “fast” was to sit still and be at peace without being bombarded by “instant dopamine” in the form of texts, social media notifications, and other unhealthy instant stimuli. The main goal behind the dopamine fast was to allow ourselves to feel a bit bored or lonely or find pleasure in simple and natural activities (such as reading a book) so we can regain control over our lives and better address compulsive behaviors and addictive substances that may be interfering with our overall health and happiness.  

Unfortunately, mainstream media warped this idea into “fasting” from dopamine, which means lowering your dopamine levels, but since dopamine is a natural brain chemical, it doesn’t decrease when you disengage from pleasurable activities; rather, it returns to baseline. Therefore, a dopamine “fast” does not lower your dopamine levels. People have even taken this trend so far that they are avoiding food, social connections, exercise, and other healthy things to lower dopamine levels; however, instead, they may be harming themselves. Rather, the true concept of dopamine fast means taking a “time out” or blocking out periods of screen time, reducing sugary foods, and disengaging with other “instant gratification” behaviors to be able to spend time with others, read a book in silence, or work on your craft.   

How can “earned” dopamine plays a role in addiction recovery? 

Addiction treatment and recovery require intense dedication, concentration, motivation, discipline, and patience. You work with a treatment team that helps you navigate difficult situations, such as urges and cravings, that can potentially trigger a relapse. You learn healthy coping mechanisms to deal with these underlying triggers and urges, and some of these healthy coping mechanisms are other outlets that require motivation to increase “earned dopamine.”  

Whether it’s learning to sit with negative thoughts, changing your negative thoughts into positive thoughts, learning to accept your past, and acknowledging how your thoughts can impact your actions, all of these require motivation and effort through different types of therapy approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy. Tools like deep breathing exercises, yoga, and physical fitness can help you overcome cravings while providing you with “earned” dopamine that fuels healthy feelings of pleasure and euphoria.  

Working to create a strong community with others who are also in recovery and who support your recovery journey is a healthy way to earn dopamine. The time you spend centered around drug use can now be filled with new hobbies, passions, and even career or educational advancements that require motivation and earned dopamine. Like our ancestors, we must fight and work hard to be dedicated to our recovery to earn our dopamine, which can grant us a lifetime of health and happiness. Learning to “earn your dopamine” is essential to a healthy recovery.  

“Pleasure is not a problem. Dopamine is not a problem. Too much pleasure experienced too often without a prior requirement for effort to achieve that pleasure/dopamine is terrible for us. It lowers our baseline level of dopamine & the potency of all experiences”. 


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