Dopamine and You

9 mins read

In the expansive world of online self-help gurus, data-driven science communicators and snake-oil supplement sellers, there’s a specific chase for understanding Dopamine. It’s a commonly misunderstood driver for our motivation and, by most people’s own admission (if they’re really reflecting on it) a temptress for bad choices. Today, I want to break down exactly what dopamine is, what it does and what we can do to use it’s functions for making things better.

If you take on the task of understanding what dopamine is, you’re actively participating in resisting the corporate conquest of our mental faculties.

I think that’s an important component of what we’re getting at. Recognizing that this system is a main target for multi-billion dollar advertising firms who really do wish to overwrite your personal goals.

If you want to know the big facts here but don’t have a few minutes to dive into the depths, here’s a synopsis;

  • Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and hormone. Think of it like a fuel that is produced by your body. That fuel is used up when you pursue things. The factory that makes the fuel produces better when you win.
  • There’s no such thing as a ‘dopamine hit’ as it’s usually described. You get more when you actually run the race, not just when you cross the finish line.
  • There are things you can do to influence your dopamine production; sleep, diet, exercise, human connection and be in nature.
  • There are things you can do to deplete your dopamine production; overuse social media, drink alcohol, disconnect from your social circle, stop taking care of your body.

What exactly is dopamine, anyway?

A lot of people mistakenly think that dopamine is the ‘sense of happiness’ that we feel when we do something pleasurable.

You’ll hear those people say that we get a ‘dopamine hit’ when we eat ice cream. That a chemical is released in response to pleasurable activity or sensation. In fact, the neurochemical process behind dopamine is best described, as Huberman would say, like a propeller. It’s a fuel source that is replenished nightly when we sleep. That fuel is either released or not released and encourages us to drive after what we want but do not possess. That could be a feeling, a material item or even a connection with another person. Dopamine makes us motivated.

That means you don’t get good feelings only when you actually achieve something. The most important thing you can take from this article is this; dopamine is released when you move forward. Your brain will chemically reward you for pursuing.

Now, in the same way that we can restore our dopamine reserves with a good night’s sleep, we can do equal damage by not maintaining good sleep hygiene. Is it any wonder that you feel less motivated if you don’t sleep well?

In the video above, Dr. Andrew Huberman starts to lay out the system that makes us pursue progress. There are checkboxes we can fill to make our brain more likely to give us that chemical bump to keep up the chase. There’s also a laundry list of no-no’s that can hold back our production.

So, how does this play with first-responder lifestyles?

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Anna Lembke of Stanford University, author of Dopamine Nation. I asked a few questions specific to the world of first responders and our relationship with stress. More specifically, how our uncommon lifestyle might help or hinder our dopamine systems.

Dopamine gets awfully overused in wellness circles. Most commonly, the phrase ‘dopamine hit’ tends to confuse us about the mechanisms that keep us motivated. How can we best inform first responders – who have many more interactions with stress than the regular public – about how dopamine mingles with stress? 

When we experience intense stress, the brain naturally triggers us to turn to a substance or behavior that will relieve that stress immediately, especially if we have a history of using substances or behaviors to change the way we feel. But this short term relief can actually make stress worse in the long run, because anything that releases lots of dopamine all at once in the brain’s reward pathway, is also its own form of biological stress, requiring the brain to do work to bring dopamine levels back down to baseline levels (homeostasis). Hence, a better way to deal with a stressful job is to prepare our bodies in advance by getting enough sleep, eating right, exercising, and developing the mental calluses needed to deal with stress, as well as processing the experiencing after the fact, often through language, its own powerful stress-releasing tool.

Are there clear signs (besides glaring substance abuse etc) that a person may have some of their brain’s chemistry out of alignment? 

Humans are in some ways simple creatures, except when we get in our own way. We need to get enough sleep, get enough exercise, eat healthy food, and connect with other humans. If we don’t do these things, our brain chemistry gets out of alignment. Conversely, an indicator of a brain out of alignment is the inability to get enough sleep, get enough exercise, eat right, or make human connections.

Particularly, we’re interested in behavioural changes that first responders could implement to course correct the effects of shift-work (sleep loss and net-negative dietary habits), traumatic stress and the more routine dopamine-drainers; social media and the like. What would you say are the most meaningful lifestyle changes a first responder could make toward improving their behavioural health as far as dopamine is concerned? 

Stop using digital media and digital devices for entertainment and to change the way we feel, and instead use this time to move our bodies, connect with other people, and connect with nature. We are wasting our precious lives spending hours every day on Youtube and TikTok.

Here’s what SIXFEET is going to do about it.

A little while ago – I posted about starting another personal development group. While we normally try to round things out with a more holistic approach, this time we’re going to zero in on one thing; motivation.

For most big lifestyle changes, it’s discipline that makes the pivotal difference. You can start out a new workout regimen with white-hot motivation, but discipline will keep your fire burning for the long haul. When it’s raining, but it’s the day you’d normally tackle a 5k, discipline will get your shoes laced up. However – the dopamine release you’ll get from grinding through that process will position you for better choices in the future because your motivation to thrive will be pumped up.

We’re going to identify a hierarchy of habits that can help or hinder your capacity for producing dopamine. Then, we’re going to figure out how to do more of what helps us. And then, we’re going to figure out how to do less of what hurts our dopamine production – even if only by a little tiny bit.

If you want to participate, shoot us a DM on instagram – @sixfoxtrot.

Bill Dungey is a volunteer firefighter in Ontario, Canada. He is focused on fitness, mindset development and finding training opportunities to help the fire service make things better.

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