Dopamine Addiction What Is It And How To Overcome It

By Jessica Saxena

Updated April 03, 2020

Reviewer Aaron Horn

Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention topics that include prescription medication, abuse of medication, and addiction. The information found in the article is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have.

Is dopamine addiction a real thing? Because of the powerful feelings associated with dopamine, addiction can happen quickly. This fact has been used as an argument that dopamine itself is what's addictive, rather than the drugs or behaviors that cause a surge in this important neurotransmitter.

To find the answer to whether dopamine addiction is real, you need to understand both the role of dopamine in the brain and what addiction is.

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Having too little or too much dopamine can have a major impact on your well-being.

When it comes to dopamine addiction, it's still up for debate if an individual is actually addicted to dopamine itself or if they are addicted to the action or behavior that causes the dopamine release. Scientists tend to support the latter argument. Getting to the bottom of the debate requires understanding what addiction is and the role dopamine plays in the brain.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is more than liking something. It's more than seeking it out. A review of studies on addiction set out to define what addiction is. It describes five components that define addiction:

  1. Engaging in the behavior to satisfy an appetite
  2. Being preoccupied with the behavior
  3. Being only temporarily sated after engaging in the behavior
  4. Losing control over the behavior
  5. Continuing the behavior despite negative consequences

The American Society of Addiction Medicine adds to this definition that addiction is a chronic brain disease involving the reward, memory, and motivation system, but that addiction involves other parts of the brain as well. It is a dysfunction within this system that causes addiction. The ASAM definition of addiction further makes it clear that addiction is a process that can happen with both substances and behaviors that are chronically misused or overused. The process happens because the dopamine system isn't functioning properly. The dysfunction of the dopamine system, then, is the cause of addiction and not the addiction itself.

What's So Great About Dopamine?

Dopamine does help us feel good. It does this by giving us the feeling of reward for behaviors we do. Those rewards give us the motivation to do that behavior more. They also prompt us to meet our survival needs like eating. Unless we're suffering from an addiction such as drug addiction, this reward/motivation system is a very positive thing. We're more likely to go after what we want and feel rewarded when we achieve it.

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Dopamine is released in anticipation of the desired reward. When we receive the reward, the feeling of the reward goes away soon after. We want to get that feeling again. Does that mean it's the dopamine we want? In a way, it is, but more scientifically, what we seek is substances or behaviors that give it to us. It's these substances and behaviors we're addicted to, not the dopamine itself.

What Happens When You Have A Dopamine Deficiency?

You can't get by without any dopamine. Without it, you wouldn't be able to do anything. You wouldn't even be able to move. If you have some dopamine but not enough, you can have any of several conditions connected with low dopamine.

  • Depression
  • Social Phobia
  • Parkinson's Disease
  • Alzheimer's Disease

What Happens When You Have Too Much Dopamine?

Having an overabundance of dopamine has been linked to mental conditions such as schizophrenia. This is a complex condition that involves many parts of the brain, which are dysfunctional. However, this overabundance is the result of an overproduction of dopamine, not the fact that you're addicted to or craving dopamine.

Does Dopamine Addiction Cause Physical and Mental Disorders?

Some mental and physical conditions are associated with problems in the dopamine system. Does this mean that these problems cause the conditions? That much isn't yet known. The subject of dopamine and addiction is complex, and it's likely different for different conditions. It could be that the conditions are caused by other factors and the dysfunction in the dopamine system is one effect of the condition. The following diseases and disorders fall into this category of being associated with problems in the dopamine system.

Dopamine and Depression

There is a well-established connection between dopamine and depression. However, dopamine isn't likely the only neurotransmitter involved if you have depression. Dopamine can create a greater problem with depression in some individuals compared to others. The impact of dopamine in your depression is largely dependent on your unique biochemical makeup. Depression and dopamine changes that go with it are often implicated in addictions. That's why dopamine antidepressants such as bupropion can help with addiction as well as depression. The depression-dopamine connection, then, plays a part in the treatment of many different conditions, particularly addictions.

Dopamine and Bipolar

The dopamine theory of bipolar, although still relatively new, suggests that dopamine plays a major role in both depressed and manic phases of bipolar disorder. During the manic phase, dopamine transmissions are high. In depression, your dopamine is low. It's also interesting to note that as you go through mania, your dopamine receptors become less sensitive, leading you into eventual depression. As the transmissions decrease during the depressive phase, the receptors become more sensitive again, leading you back to mania.

ADHD And Dopamine

Stimulants are a common treatment for children with ADHD. A common concern for parents is that your child's treatment for ADHD and dopamine effects related to it might cause your child to be an addict later in life. The truth is, however, that when children get this treatment for ADHD, they have a decreased risk of substance use disorders and cigarette smoking. The dopamine ADHD dysfunction studies being conducted aim to provide safe and effective treatments, with emphasis on treatment for pediatric patients.

Dopamine And Parkinson's

Dopamine dysfunction causes a variety of problems in Parkinson's disease, given that it's related to problems with mood, movement, and memories. In Parkinson's disease, the degeneration of the dopamine system is responsible for this dysfunction, resulting in fewer dopamine receptors. This means the dopamine transmissions are fewer and milder, leading to memory problems. The neurons in the brain that synthesize dopamine are lost over time so that less and less dopamine is present. Parkinson's disease and dopamine is the subject of intense research as scientists work to find treatments for Parkinson's dopamine dysfunction. This research aims to identify possible treatment options to manage the dopamine problems that Parkinson's creates.

Dopamine And Schizophrenia

The dopamine hypothesis of schizophrenia states that schizophrenia comes from a state of having too much dopamine in the brain. This debate was born amongst scientists as they began exploring the relationship between schizophrenia and dopamine. This led to the establishment of this hypothesis, which has grown out of the fact that neuroleptic drugs, which decrease dopamine, were effective treatments for schizophrenia while drugs that increased dopamine made the condition worse. However, the connection between schizophrenia and dopamine is still debated given that normal patients don't develop schizophrenia symptoms when given large doses of dopamine and that neuroleptic drugs don't help all people with schizophrenia.

Behaviors That Trigger Dopamine Production

While there are both physical and mental conditions caused by dopamine dysfunctions, as discussed, the actual addiction to dopamine is debated. Many scientists argue that it is actually an addiction to behaviors that trigger dopamine production that creates what many refer to as dopamine addiction. To better understand this argument, you must first understand some of the most common behaviors that trigger dopamine production.

Porn And Dopamine

Pornography consumption, especially when it's frequent, activates the dopamine system. You may feel a reward when you know you're about to see porn. You also feel pleasure while you're viewing it, but that reward isn't as great as that of anticipation.

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Dopamine transporter levels go down as pornography use increases. This decreases the dopamine transmissions over time. As they decrease, pornography use usually increases, creating an ongoing cycle of addiction that becomes more and more serious as time goes by unless you get treatment.

Dopamine And Sex

The connection between dopamine and sex is well established. Scientists believe the evolution of the dopamine system happened because it ensured survival. A part of survival is procreation, and sex was necessary to achieve that. This means the dopamine system is directly involved when engaging in sex. It becomes problematic, and an addiction, when you begin seeking sex so intensely that you suffer negative consequences. With treatment, you can learn to control those impulses. When you do, you're more likely to live a stable and healthy life.

Cocaine And Dopamine

Cocaine and dopamine are hand-in-glove with each other. You take cocaine, you feel good (at least for a while); thanks to the release of dopamine. In fact, the feeling is so intense you want to do it again as soon as possible. Over time, your dopamine system begins to change and your dopamine receptors become less available for cocaine rewards, other satisfactions, as well other dopamine transmissions. In other words, with more cocaine use, your brain no longer releases as much dopamine as it once did. You start having intense cravings when you aren't using and the pleasure you get from the drug decreases. This means cocaine dopamine dysfunction changes your brain chemistry in the long term. If you get to this point, treatment is crucial to deal with the addiction and return your dopamine system to its equilibrium.

Marijuana And Dopamine

Marijuana is one of the most used drugs in the U.S. So what is the connection between weed and dopamine? Long-term marijuana use affects the dopamine reward system in a way that decreases motivation. All drugs of abuse affect dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain activated during the dopamine system's anticipatory reward response. For weed, this effect can change the dopamine system in such a way that it can lead to continued use and addiction to other drugs.

Alcohol And Dopamine

As seen with other behaviors and substances, with alcohol and dopamine, responses in the dopamine pathway for non-drug rewards diminish as the addiction progresses. This happens in the mesolimbic system. A second dopamine pathway, the one called the inhibitory control pathway, is also disrupted, causing a lack of behavioral control. As the dopamine system changes over time, the levels of dopamine released will decrease, requiring more and more alcohol to get the "feel good" feeling you once got.


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The Battle Against Addiction Can Be Won

Although the exact mechanisms of dopamine, addiction, and other conditions aren't all known yet, what we do know is that healthy people have a stable and well-functioning dopamine system. Regardless of whether you are addicted to dopamine or the behavior that produces dopamine, you can win your battle against addiction like many before you. In fact, more than 23 million Americans (or 10% of the US population) have overcome addiction.

How to Overcome Dopamine Addiction

There is no one size fits all solution for overcoming dopamine addiction. However, there are several things you can do to help set yourself up for success. Here are a few different ways that you can work toward overcoming your addiction.

Identify Triggers

Triggers, both emotional and environmental, are those things that can cause you to relapse in your battle against addiction. Understanding what your specific triggers are can help you avoid or minimize any relapse you may have from them.

Have a Support System

Support systems play a crucial role in overcoming addiction as they give you a means of surrounding yourself with healthy individuals, give you healthy peer pressure, and give you the support you need when you find yourself struggling with triggers.

Exercise

Exercise has many benefits when you are trying to overcome addiction. It can serve as a distraction, give you another means of feeling pleasure, and has been proven to be an effective tool at preventing relapse.

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Manage Stress

Stress is one of the most common triggers for relapse so finding ways to manage your stress should be one of your first steps when working toward overcoming addiction. Common ways to manage stress include yoga, mindfulness meditation, acupuncture, massage therapy, and getting proper rest.

Medications And Dopamine Balance

An excess or deficiency of dopamine can have a major impact on the body's system. If there is a dopamine imbalance, medication can be an effective form of treatment. If you have a serious medical or psychiatric condition, it's best to consult with a doctor or psychiatrist to find the right regimen for medications and lifestyle changes.

Seek Professional Help

Another option that can help you overcome dopamine addiction is therapy. Psychotherapy changes the brain structure and can be effective in restoring balance in the dopamine system. This has been proven by scientists who have found physiological changes in the dopamine system by looking at neuroimaging results after a year of psychotherapy. Even if you have no symptoms or are unsure if you have a dopamine problem, talking to a counselor may help you gain and maintain a steadier state in your dopamine availability and transmissions. Working one-on-one with a therapist can help you assess your mental health and possibly prevent problems before they happen. Doing so can help you open the path to better mental health and a happier, more fulfilling life.

This is where BetterHelp comes in. You can get the help and support of a therapist without the hassle that comes with traditional therapy. The licensed counselors at BetterHelp will help you explore dopamine-related subjects like mood, memory, motivation, pleasure, and reward. The best part is that all of your communication with your therapist is done from the comfort of your own space, no more commutes to the over-air-conditioned therapist's office. With BetterHelp, you can work with your therapist via messages, live chat, over the phone, or via video conferencing. This means you can get support when and where you need it. Below you can read some reviews of BetterHelp's licensed and credentialed therapists that have helped others work through their addiction struggles.

Counselor Reviews

"Julissa is my lifeline to sobriety. I always know that she is there to assist me. She's honest and to the point. She helps me to see other aspects of my behavior that I either could not see or refuse to see. Thank you, Julissa!"

"Tihesha really listens and cares, without judgment, offering understanding and explanation. She also knows you, and she knows when the hard times are hitting the hardest. I stayed sober during the hardest moment - and that's something you need support for."

Get Your Life Back

You control your life - not your addiction. Take back your control and get a new lease on life by talking to a counselor and working to overcome your addictive habits using the tips we've outlined. Take the first step today.


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