How To Overcome Dopamine Addiction

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

While dopamine itself might not be addictive, it can play a complex role in rewarding and motivating unhealthy behaviors—and driving substance tolerance.

Understanding what dopamine is and its role in addiction can make it easier to address unhealthy behaviors in one’s life. There are strategies shown to help people address addictive behaviors, and a therapist can work with you to determine the best approach.  

Read on to learn more about dopamine addiction and supportive strategies you can try to possibly reach a higher quality of life. 

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Finding it difficult to stop a behavior you know is harmful?

What is dopamine?

Dopamine can be a “feel-good” neurotransmitter—otherwise known as a chemical messenger in the brain. When we engage in certain behaviors, dopamine can then be released—possibly causing a sensation of pleasure. 

The behavior that triggered the release of dopamine can then be associated with pleasure, which might motivate us to repeat the behavior. This is often described as a biological “reward system,” and though many believe that it evolved to help humans survive, it can also play a complex role in addiction. There are two main ways that it can do this: 

Dopamine can reward unhealthy behaviors

Dopamine can play an important role in ensuring we complete essential tasks for survival—such as eating, drinking, and reproducing. However, some activities—while harmful to our health—can trigger much larger releases of dopamine. 

For example: While an orgasm may release 200 units of dopamine, methamphetamine can release 1,250 units. Other potentially harmful activities, including social media use, drug use, alcohol use, playing video games, gambling, and the consumption of comfort foods can also trigger large releases of dopamine. 

While these might not necessarily be healthy activities for one’s long-term health, the pleasure derived from dopamine can drive us to repeat the behavior. 

Overuse of unhealthy behaviors can alter the brain

Natural dopamine rewards can be approximately 10 times smaller than the flood of dopamine that can be triggered by many addictive substances. Many believe that this can happen as a result of the hypothesis that the neural pathways in the brain were not designed to manage massive, repeated influxes of dopamine. 

Excessive release of dopamine can over-stimulate the brain. Additionally, over time, repeated engagement in activities that can drive very large releases of dopamine can physically alter the brain—possibly damaging neurons and making them less sensitive to dopamine. This can cause tolerance, particularly in the case of substance use, which may drive people to use larger amounts of substances to achieve the same feeling. 

At the same time, the brain can become more sensitive to feelings of discomfort and nervousness, which can further drive people to seek dopamine-releasing activities that might temporarily relieve negative feelings. 

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Dopamine deficiency

It may sound counter-intuitive, but behaviors that might drive large releases of dopamine can cause dopamine deficiency. Though these activities may temporarily release a large amount of dopamine, dopamine can then drop below baseline levels when the activities are stopped.

The altered brain can then create a new type of balance by counteracting surges of dopamine with drops (called a “comedown,” by many). Symptoms of dopamine deficiency can include: 

  • A lack of motivation
  • Feelings of nervousness, irritability, hopelessness and exhaustion
  • Difficulty concentrating and other cognitive changes 
  • No feelings of pleasure from things you used to enjoy
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Socially withdrawing
  • Low libido 

Some health conditions, including depression, restless leg syndrome and Parkinson’s disease, can also be associated with dopamine deficiency. Medication and/or online therapy may also be needed to address dopamine deficiency. Additionally, many suggest that engaging in relaxing activities and eating a diet high in magnesium and tyrosine may help. 

Addressing addiction

Our brains are generally thought to possess a quality called neuroplasticity—which can be defined as the ability to change in response to experiences. Though addictive behaviors can harmfully alter the brain, effective interventions (such as cognitive behavioral therapy and operant conditioning) can reprogram the brain with healthier habits. The following are strategies that can help address addictions: 

Put a pause on addictive behaviors

According to Dr. Anna Lembke, an expert psychiatrist, a 30-day break from addictive behavior can help restore dopamine balance. After that period, it may be easier to re-incorporate the activity in moderation. To help maintain moderation after the pause, it is generally recommended that you utilize physical distance and/or time limits when you engage in dopamine-related activities. 

In the case of excessive social media use, for example, you may want to set a time limit on social media apps or block apps on your work computer. 

We do want to note: If you have substance use disorder, it can be dangerous to stop abruptly. Please consult with a medical practitioner to begin creating a personalized treatment plan that can help.

Additional recommendations can include: 

Identifying triggers

Triggers, both emotional and environmental, can remind you of an addictive behavior or substance and can cause a relapse. Triggers might include things like stress or people you used to use substances with. Understanding your triggers can help you plan what to do when you encounter them. 

Having a support system

Addictive behaviors and substance use disorders can be serious and difficult to recover from without help. Studies have found information that suggests that maintaining social support can be an important part of recovery. Family can act as positive motivators, and individuals whose families are involved in their recovery experience might have fewer and less severe relapses. 

Adopting healthy lifestyle behaviors 

Exercise, sleep, a healthy diet, mindfulness, massage therapy, and yoga may help manage stress and reduce the risk of relapse for many. You might consider experimenting with what many deem “healthy” lifestyle behaviors to create a regimen that works for you.  

Medications

Your medical practitioner may be able to help you address dopamine imbalances, substance use disorder and underlying health conditions with medications. These may include things like nicotine gum or other pharmaceutical agents. 

If you believe you may have a medical or psychiatric condition, you might consider consulting with your doctor to find the best treatment option.  

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Finding it difficult to stop a behavior you know is harmful?

Try online therapy (here’s how you can benefit)

The American Psychological Association generally recommends evidence-based methods for addressing substance use disorder and other addictive behaviors, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing, and contingency management. 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy is generally defined as a type of talk therapy where licensed therapists can help clients identify unhelpful automatic thoughts that might drive one’s emotions and behaviors. Clients can then work to challenge these thoughts and replace maladaptive behaviors with healthier coping mechanisms. 
  • Motivational interviewing can also be used in talk therapy. It can increase motivation, ambition, and optimism in some. 
  • Contingency management can be used to provide rewards for good behaviors. These rewards may include prizes, cash, and vouchers. This strategy can be used in combination with others, and some studies show it can have sustained long-term effects

While all of these can be helpful to some, online therapy can be the most approachable modality of support for many. It can also be more affordable and comfortable for those who don’t feel financially or emotionally prepared to seek formal treatment. 

Is online therapy effective? 

A 2019 study has found information that suggests that people experiencing problematic substance use patterns may prefer online therapy to in-person therapy. This can be because it can be more flexible, and it may provide more of a sense of autonomy. 

Additionally, research published in Cureus highlights information that suggests that online CBT, which is offered on sites like BetterHelp, can effectively reduce symptoms of many psychiatric disorders that can co-occur with substance use disorder.  

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Takeaway

Dopamine can play a complex role in the development and maintenance of addiction. The chemical can be released as part of a natural reward system, which, under typical circumstances, might act as a healthy motivator. However, certain behaviors and substances can drive large releases of dopamine that can flood the brain and cause an imbalance. This event, if repeated, can trigger dopamine deficiency. 

Substance use disorder and other addictive behaviors can be challenging to address because of the way they can alter the brain, but there are several evidence-based strategies that can effectively change harmful behaviors. Maintaining strong support systems, practicing healthy lifestyle behaviors, working with a medical practitioner, and attending therapy sessions can help. Online therapy can be effective at reducing the frequency and intensity of relapses for some people. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need.

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