Did you know that your brain can secretly be addicted to a chemical that triggers a cycle of unhappiness which can create shallow, unfulfilled relationships despite your best efforts to thwart it?
Yup! Neither did I, until I caught it red handed!
Annnnnd of course....I dove into some pretty interesting research and here's what I found out...
Most people with access to modern technology actually have the same silent addiction and don't even know it! It is triggered and fed by simple, everyday things like scrolling social media, checking off to do lists and even eating their favorite foods! Now, before you go delete your social media apps, toss your daily planner or go on a bland food diet, I'm here to tell you there is hope yet!
So, what exactly am I referring to?
A naturally occurring neurotransmitter hormone produced by your body called dopamine...wait...you may be thinking, I thought dopamine was a chemical that made you happy? You would be right, it is known as the happiness hormone, but here-in lies the problem. It's affects are always very short-lived and when left unchecked, the untrained brain embarks on a never ending quest to get its next "hit" leaving you in a constant roller coaster of the highest highs followed by the lowest lows.
How dopamine works and what you should focus on instead...
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter made in the brain which the body uses to send messages between nerve cells. It is triggered by either the anticipation of, or actual occurrence of pleasurable situations. Basically, it's your body's short term reward system. Think of it as a sprinter to the happiness finish line. Unfortunately, the second you step one toe over that finish line, your body begins searching for that next finish line.
This constant quest can be a recipe for disaster in many areas of life IF it is not balanced by feeding the production of long term happiness hormones as well. The fact is that many people live a good portion of their lives on this cycle of short term "hits" of happiness and never learn the key to sustainable happiness which is triggered by another naturally occurring chemical produced in the brain. Although lesser known, this has proven to deliver long lasting results including long term happiness and more fulfilling relationships. This neurotransmitter and hormone known as oxytocin.
What is oxytocin? A powerful hormone made in the hypothalamus which regulates social interaction, sexual reproduction, maternal–infant bonding, milk release, empathy, and anxiety. A good way to remember this is to think your brain needs oxytocin for your mental health like your physical health depends on oxygen. Those that take steps to feed the production of oxytocin more than dopamine tend to lead happier lives with deeper, more meaningful relationships and feel more fulfilled overall.
How does dependance on short term happiness (dopamine) affect our lives?
First and foremost, please note that I am not saying that triggering dopamine is all together bad. When controlled, triggering dopamine by checking off an item on a to do list, connecting with someone new on social media or enjoying your favorite meal for example, are great things that can keep us motivated and moving in a positive direction. It is when we constantly feed the need for short term satisfaction to the point that we starve out our innate need for deeper connection and resulting happiness and well being that we tend to find ourselves in an ugly spiral that can leave us feeling a serious sense of lack, frustration and even deep sadness among other things.
This cycle of feeding quick hits of happiness can also greatly affect our relationships as well. Deep connections are actually formed during times when the production of oxytocin is the highest which will be a topic for another day, but for now just know that mastering the art of oxytocin production is beneficial in all areas of life!
Things that helped me move from dopamine addictions and shallow connections to long lasting happiness and deeper connections triggered by oxytocin:
Limit time on social media and turn off notifications that trigger that dopamine hit more than needed.
Schedule out your week and include time to reflect, relax, recharge and connect with family and friends without technology whenever possible.
Meal plan weekly with healthier versions of your favorite foods. I like to make paleo versions of my favorite comfort food dishes when I am craving them so I am still satisfied, but don't feed a sugar or carb addiction and fuel my body in a healthy way.
Schedule a full body cleanse once or twice a year. I like to do a Master Cleanse (blog on this to come) often followed by a Whole30 diet for a full body reset. I tend to meal prep for my family during this time and take the time I would have spent cooking for some extra prayer. This does two things, breaks any food addictions I may have formed, maintains healthy weight and allows my body to rest and detox regularly.
Be intentional with appropriate physical touch with your family members. Hugs, kisses, cuddles, hand holding and intimacy can boost oxytocin levels dramatically. This can be challenging between parents and older children, especially in teen years, but children of any age still need appropriate physical touch from their parents to feel loved and trigger that chemical reaction, so do your best to find moments to hug them, pat them on the back or sit close to them.
Regular exercise. Many can attest to the mental benefits of getting in a daily workout, but many do not realize that in order to continue to actually enjoy your workouts. and look forward to them, you need to ensure that you trigger both dopamine (I do this by setting and meeting small goals throughout my workout even if it is short) and oxytocin by completing even a short workout.
If you find this list intimidating, keep in mind that you are catching me in the middle of my journey and it's okay to be right where you are. Even being intentional about implementing just one or two of the items listed may very well make a marked improvement in your life.
If you have struggled to find long term happiness, please know that you are not alone and there is hope and encouragement waiting for you in a facebook group I created just for that reason. Feel free to check it out here and don't forget the click the guide section to find all kinds of interviews and free resources to help you along your healing journey. Stop by and say hello! We can't wait to meet you!