What up with the Dopamine?

So the other day I was returning from my routine morning run and saw a fellow puffing cigarette after his run ended. Looking at this man dragging his breath out his lungs after he’d gifted them with a pure, blissful dose of the oxygen-rich morning air, I was amused to witness the contradiction.

It was 0540, the sun had taken its ascent in the cool, orange summer sky and here I was enjoying my dose of dopamine acquired in exchange for one of the many accepted currencies in the system. You give your brain something rewarding, it gives back dopamine. Learn something new? You have your reward, and? A dose of Dopamine from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain. You relish that piece of tasty brownies, what you have is dopamine! So, the math is simple, you have to give something to have something in return. So the question arises, why I felt elated? And for others like me who don’t know a bit about dopamine, the question arises how dopamine is related to the feelings of mirth, elation? Maybe this one extract from an article by Psychology Today on Dopamine might help.

Dopamine helps regulate movement, attention, learning, and emotional responses. It also enables us not only to see rewards but to take action to move toward them. Since dopamine contributes to feelings of pleasures and satisfaction as part of the reward system, the neurotransmitter also plays a part in addiction.  

Psychology Today

Coming back to the first question, why I felt elated? What was so rewarding in the act of giving your legs a beating? Well, the rewards were many. For instance, completing the run in the target pace or giving that heart a run-up for an hour-long session; demanding a considerable effort in pumping blood to the oxygen hungry muscles at work, etc.

But, why was that man in need of nicotine? Turns out that stimulants like nicotine, drugs like cocaine, meth (Remember Breaking Bad?), opioids, heroin, and psychostimulants increase levels of dopamine in the reward system and hence they play a role in addiction.

But, the question arises why do we feel the need to seek rewards from stimulants, chemicals or otherwise? Take, for example, us, the millennials, we are a people who are the most affected by stress, addiction, obesity, low self-esteem, and a myriad of other problems.

A lot of us are more concerned about how we want ourselves to be seen rather than shaping our skillset and letting our skills shine our light; being considerate of others, being more observant.

When we are very young, we seek the approval of our parents. As we enter adolescence, we crave for it from our peers. And that’s when a majority of us take up alcohol, smoking, etc. Almost all alcoholics got introduced to alcohol in their teens. What bogs me down is why don’t we seek our approval? Maybe we lack self-esteem. We are a generation that is unsure about ourselves, over-stressed and frustrated. And stress is a factor that moves this mountain of addiction in our path to sanity. Rather than learning to cope with stress by speaking it out with humans, we tend to take refuge under the numbing embrace of the addictions – of chemicals or otherwise.

If you believe that only chemicals are inhibiting our capacity to cope with stress then let me forewarn you, you are wrong. We are surrounded by yet another contributor to the dopamine problem – the smartphone. Just take a moment before attending to that ‘bing’ of your smartphone and feel the gnawing urgency that takes the claim of your conscious mind even if it is for a very short while. Well, that happens because you are vehemently opposing the elation or stopping your mind to move towards it which otherwise would’ve been satisfied had you looked into it.

That’s not it. Talking of smartphone without the mention of the social media will be foolishness. Today’s social media had not only substituted human interaction with its highly interactive interface but also has largely been the prime conniver of reducing the self-worth of an individual to the number of digital likes, views, and comments he/she has garnered on their SM accounts. And interestingly they are paid by the loot they were able to stack in. How do social media influencers make money out of their followership?

As humans, we are hard-wired to be always on the move. The rewards motivate us to move our butts. And, those rewards produce dopamine in the VTA which inturn, drags us into this cycle of moving forward for good. And today’s social media has its flip side of breaking the cycle. We have failed to banner social media with the restrictions akin to that on alcohol and gambling. This should be done immediately. For if the young guns are introduced to this electronic drug, their impressionable minds will always be worried about how they should match with the latest fashion trends rather than making strong relations in family and friendships.

I was inspired to write about it when I saw this video on YouTube, Most leaders don’t even know the game they are in – Simon Sinek

But, before that, I made myself a test case and I monitored my social media activity, my table manners and the thing with the WhatsApp statuses. And the findings are shockingly amusing!

One, I posted a few posts asking my peers to write something about me or give feedback on something by the use of Instagram Polls and Ask Me Anything. Two, by observing the behavioral pattern of my near and dears ones who can be categorized as entry-level SM addicts. And three, by Willfully submitting myself into those “status traps” that demand the respondent to complete a few tasks before getting the answers or whatever those traps were designed upon.

For example, this post which I recently posted

The reason why I chose such a picture was to see the reactions of people, of my close friends. And behind that want of reaction was an observant eye hawking for the anxieties that were at the helm of every notification alert in my smartphone. Because to me, this was a risk, I could have exposed myself to speculations of being a man who was lost or a gone case. The one who thought brandishing a smoke was cooler now as it was in the old’ days of Camel when it was seen as a matter of social status (By the way, earlier in the medieval era, the cigarettes were associated with the low-borns who made them up with waste paper and scrapes of tobacco collected from the remaining litter of pipes and cigars of the high-borns!). Anyway, coming to the point, the post stayed online for 24 hours and every time the phone cried, I had this undying urge to see what reactions the post had garnered and who saw it.
This and many other posts like this brought a realization that I was essentially lacking the resilience and self-control compared to what I had a year ago.

The second most important finding which I noticed was the effect of the presence of phones in the visual range of the person accompanying you in the middle of an interesting conversation. This happened this June when I was with my cousin in an Italian shack in Kolkata, we were having a deep conversation about our personal lives, how we were coping with our demons, basically about the question, “So, tell me how’s life going?”. I don’t have a count on time but looking at the length and span of the topics covered, a close guess would be about 40 minutes. And just then, when our second order arrived, I happened to take out my smartphone and looked into its dark screen, probably looking for a notification, UNCONSCIOUSLY, as if I was waiting to have a look at it at the back of my mind and forty minutes wasn’t enough for that little bastard to remind my habitual self to take over! And guess what, our conversation felt awkward after that. It suddenly got away in a hurry and the next close guess would be fifteen minutes, the time it took us to end that conversation and take off from the shack to the nearest metro station.

That was the time, maybe, I had this urge to dig deeper into the change in dynamics of interpersonal relationships in presence of smartphones and what I found was just by the presence of a small screen of the smartphone. It essentially makes the other person feel less important.

On the bright side, humans are bloody mysterious. They always find ways to survive. And I do believe we can always rely on dopamine produced naturally in our bodies rather than that which comes with the sources I have hounded with pleasure in this blog so far.

Here I am listing few activities by which any walking human could take that shot of dopamine.

Go out in the Sun daily

When you’re exposed to sunlight, it both increases your number of dopamine receptors and gives you vitamin D, which in turn activates genes that help release dopamine. Light in general triggers dopamine release in your eyes, which is probably why we like being glued to our screens.

Get More Human Contact

Human contact triggers dopamine production not just for you, but for the other person as well. So get your dopamine fix whether you’re caressing your girlfriends/boyfriends, hugging the kids or even shaking hands with colleagues.

Get a Massage

By extension, activities with a lot of touching also boost dopamine, including massages. For a fact that it reduces stress and tension in your muscles.

Hug Your Pet

The principle of increasing dopamine through touch also extends to animals, so make it a habit to stroke or hug your pets.

Get the Right Amount of Sleep

Meditate

Sometimes the best way to do something is by doing nothing. Specifically, you do nothing physically but in your mind, you’re trying to sort out your thoughts. Whether you meditate, pray or do simple self-reflection, all these activities are linked to increased dopamine levels.

Listen To Music

I was introduced to some good songs by my friend from Delhi, for instance, Billy Joel’s The Downeaster Alexa which I listen to and almost instantly go in trance. Listening to music that you like makes the brain release dopamine as a response. Good music equals good mood, isn’t it?

Make Music

This head reminds me of a friend/brother of mine from Himachal Pradesh, he plays guitar and tries to make his notes or whatever you music lovers call. And I remember him as a guy who never touched alcohol even if he was surrounded by boozers!

Do Creative Things

Increasing dopamine can be as simple as taking up a creative hobby like photography, crafting, auto repair or drawing. Looking back in the memory field and watching my creative Mallu brother sketching his favorite super-cars I now realize the reason behind his cheerful smile.

List Down Your Small Tasks

Dopamine is also released after you finish something, whether it’s a big job or a small task. So it follows that if you want more dopamine “hits”, break down those big jobs into smaller ones.

Just like I feel elated to struck off names of the books on my read-list when I finish reading them. Feels great, try it out.

Take a Cold Shower

I remember standing under the shower feeling the cold spray of water rinsing out all the worries off me.

Lose Some Weight

Exercise Often

Physical activity is something our body craves (even if your conscious brain hates it sometimes). To make it fun for us, our brain releases fun chemicals like serotonin, endorphins and yes, dopamine. I still remember the feeling when I used to finish those 90 odd push-ups which I did under the watchful eyes of my buddy in college and was known for his gleeful attitude.

Take a Walk or Run

Damn, I miss running with my friends, seniors, and juniors in the first two years of college. And yes I regret not running with a friend lost and found in the three years I was in Cochin.

If you want to read more as to how to get back on your dopamine levels and fight that stress naturally, try hitting this.

And this last line ends my watch for now. It felt great going through some interesting articles, my journal entries (love re-living the best days of my life) and giving two hours of focused effort into writing this blog. And I am writing it in the present tense, “I sign off from my WP editor now with a lot of healthy dopamine”, so that it reminds every reader that it felt awesome to write this piece.

3 thoughts on “What up with the Dopamine?

  1. What an amazing read, bro! The world today is changing so fast that we forget that we’re still the same old humans. Yes, we need that dose of dopamine and as you’ve so clearly stated above, there are many natural ways to get it. Keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

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