Be it sugar, social media or sex, the response in our brain is the same: It produces the “feel-good” neurochemical called dopamine, which brings on feelings of pleasure and motivation. “It may be even more important for motivation than for actual pleasure,” says Dr. Anna Lembke, a Stanford Medical School psychiatrist, researcher and author of the new book, Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence.
A dopamine hit brings about pleasure, and then is quickly followed by pain, or a come-down, in order to keep us motivated. Lembke says this balancing see-saw of pleasure and pain made sense in the time of early humans, when we had to constantly search for our basic needs – food, water, shelter. “It’s really an ingenious method to make sure that no matter what we do, that’s pleasurable. It doesn’t last very long and it’s followed by pain so that immediately we’re searching again,” she explains.
But, in modern life, we live in a world of abundance rather than scarcity, and Lembke says our brains weren’t evolved for the “fire hose of dopamine” of sugar, social media, TV, sex, drugs or any number of dopamine-triggering stimuli so easily available. In short, Lembke says, almost every behavior has become “drugified.”
When we’re repeatedly exposed to our pleasure-producing stimuli, our brains adjust and, eventually, we need more and more just to feel “normal,” or not in pain. That’s called a “dopamine deficit state,” and the cycle that leads us there can actually lead to depression, anxiety, irritability and insomnia.
“We’re not able to take joy in more modest rewards,” Lembke says. “Now, our drug of choice doesn’t even get us high. It just makes us feel normal. And when we’re not using, we’re experiencing the universal symptoms of withdrawal from any addictive substance, which are anxiety, irritability, insomnia, dysphoria and craving.”
Ultimately, Lembke says, this is a universal problem – not one limited to those of us struggling with the disease of addiction – that has come with living in modern life. And to restore our sanity, collectively we must rethink how to navigate a dopamine overloaded world.