Anxiety and the dangers of dopamine fixes

“Addiction isn’t about substance – you aren’t addicted to the substance, you are addicted to the alteration of mood that the substance brings”

Susan Cheever


DopamineWhen you suffer from daily general anxiety it’s not unusual to feel low and at times depressed.

The joys of life often seem few and far between and so it’s not surprising that you look for quick and easy highs or ‘pick me ups’.

Anything which might give you some respite from the way you feel and improve your mood, if only for a little while.

I used to call them ‘little wins’ in the battle to feel good again. Now I know they are not wins at all, instead all they were doing was distracting me from making the real wins I wanted, in both the way I thought and felt and who I wanted to be.

Now don’t get me wrong, we all need little feel good boosts along the way, but not when these are done at the expense of what will help you make real progress.

When used is this way all they end up doing is papering over the cracks and it doesn’t take much to knock you off your stride again. 

It took me a long time to understand that these short term ‘mood enhancers’ all had one thing in common, they all caused my brain to produce dopamine.

Dopamine is a hormone and neurotransmitter which plays a number of roles in the human brain and body, but one of the most significant of these is in reward motivated behaviour. It makes you do things which make you instantly feel better, even if in the long run they are detrimental to your health and wellbeing.   

Dopamine is picked up by receptors in the brain and gives you a feeling of reward and satisfaction, it makes you feel good.

What’s the issue with this you may ask? 

Well, it’s 3 fold:

  1. The release is short lived and it doesn’t take long before you start to feel low again. This then reinforces the action required to give you the reward of another dopamine release and you focus on doing things which will give you that instant hit.
  2. You get addicted to the feelings dopamine gives you and you end up needing it more and more to feel better. Your dopamine receptors can eventually become desensitised and you end up needing to give yourself bigger hits just to feel it. This is why many cannabis users move on to harder drugs and why the gambler who used to enjoy a quick flutter on a horse once a month is now found sat in a casino at 4am with an empty bank account.
  3. When you are continually looking for that next hit it distracts your from the real long term wins and goals. These are the ones which will actually make you feel better, not just for a few minutes or hours, but day in day out. Dopamine addiction can be strong enough to alter your decisions and you make the wrong choices to feel better instantly, rather than in the long run.

Common dopamine addictions

Here are the most common ones, I expect you will be familiar with more than one:

  • Alcohol – often used by those with anxiety to numb their thoughts and feelings. Booze can give you a dopamine spike which encourages you to drink more to sustain the release. The problem is at the same time your brain also releases chemicals which can cause depression and increased anxiety – read more here
  • Food – junk food and overeating are often used for comfort and to feel better. Some healthy foods also release dopamine, but it is the over indulgent cakes, chocolate and ice cream which give the largest squirt of the hormone. This can lead to weight gain and being fat and lethargic does nothing for your self esteem. 
  • Gambling – the thrill of the risk and reward and the chance to make easy money (if only that were true) can give a very large dopamine release. This is why people can run up huge debts chasing their fix.
  • Drugs – see alcohol
  • Sex, masturbation and porn – sex with a loving partner can do wonders for your health and well being. Constant random hook ups may boost your self esteem in the short term, but in the long run it often leaves you feeling empty and hollow. Masturbation and porn can also do you more harm than good, especially if you are always looking for that perfect sex scene to jerk off to. Often this can lead to you watching more are more hardcore pornography to get a more powerful dopamine release, this is due to what is known as the Coolidge Effect. There is a great video on this here.
  • Overuse of social media – modern communication, technology and especially social media have left many people feeling lonely. People spend more and more time living outside the real world, hoping people will like, comment and acknowledge what they have to say. When they get the response they are after they feel wanted, and that dopamine response is activated, you then end up spending more time trying to get it again and not living in the real world.
  • Consumer products – it’s known as ‘retail therapy’, getting pleasure from the things you buy and own. This is often done to show some level of status or achievement, the dopamine release you get from buying something new doesn’t last though. I remember a few years back when feeling very down my new MacBook arrived, I was so excited and thought, ‘this is going to cheer me up, this is what I needed’. How pathetic is that?! No surprise then, that 2 days later I was back feeling depressed again and wanting the next new ‘toy’ to give me my next dopamine hit.

This list has a wide range of items, but they all work in the same way. Addiction does not have to be based around needing a substance, it can simply be in you constantly doing things to make yourself feel a certain way.

Some of these are also coping techniques used for anxiety, which often involve you trying to busy the mind or numb the thoughts and feelings your anxiety brings.

Why you should aim for longer term ‘wins’ not short term dopamine releases

When you are feeling anxious and panicky you long to feel better, to never feel that way again. You can see and feel the person you want to be and this is half the problem.

Often when people stand up and say ‘I’m not going to let this make me feel this way anymore, I will be the person I want to be’ they want to make that transformation instantly.

This is not the right way to look at it, rather that you will get there gradually over a period of time by making the right choices and moving in the right direction.

Dopamine hits can give you that illusion of instant transformation, but they quickly subside and instead make it all the much harder to get there.

It takes away that incentive to work for your harder but altogether more rewarding long term goals and aspirations. This is as much to do with human nature as the instant gratification of modern day society.

You can’t have it all now, you can’t just jump to that person. You are where you are now and only by being ok with avoiding the instant highs and focusing on the longer term improvements will you be able to get to where you want.

The constant use of any of the items listed above (and other instant dopamine triggers) will only delay your recovery. They can be used, they can be enjoyed, but not as the end goal and certainly not in place of what makes you really feel better.

Nothing you can buy or own will help you, nothing you use to numb or distract you will rid you of the anxiety and panic by making you feel better. 

Instead learn the control and discipline to deny the quick wins and look forward to the bigger and more fulfilling wins later on

These are what give you the feelings of self esteem, confidence, self worth, fulfilment and achievement. Knowing you knew what you really wanted and you went and got it.

This cannot be found in something you can have today, tomorrow, this week or even this month. If it’s that instant, it will be short lived. 

Real calm and peace of mind comes from understanding who you are and what you want and then making the right decisions to go and get it. 

This intern helps give you a good steady level of dopamine in the brain which makes you feel better everyday. The dangers of dopamine come from the large instant hits which you then end up chasing for more.

When you feel better you will no longer need to rely on the dopamine hits, you’ll have something altogether much better. Something real you can feel everyday, a solid and consistent feeling of knowing you are doing the right thing and feeling all the better for it.

Do not allow your anxiety, panic and depressing thoughts to control what you do. They will push you towards the instant dopamine fixes to try and feel better instantly, but this will only delay your recovery in the long run.


Hugo Rock


Like this article?

Sign up to receive new posts directly to your inbox for FREE. Just enter your email below and click SUBMIT. We will never share your email – EVER!