The Brain Chemistry Guide to Escaping Anxiety
Dopamine makes you a quick-fix junkie of happiness. Oxytocin builds sustainable contentment.
Firstly all, let me say how much I love y’all and see what an uphill battle you’ve been through the last year. 2018 was not a fun time to inhabit a human body. This is a guide to cut out some crap from your life that’s making you miserable and anxious so you’re ACTUALLY HAPPY. I can’t think of anything more subversive right now than to decide to be happy and let people notice you doing it.
(P.S. Things are about to get a lot better, I can feel it in my bones. We’re going to finish up a lot of what #metoo started and come into the most for-real partnerships that have ever existed. We’re going to find freedom AND intimacy. It’s gonna be SO GOOD. Just hang tight.)
How do we do that? Let’s understand the neuroscience of the brain’s reward pathways.
The happiness provided by dopamine and endorphins have a totally different sensation than that provided by oxytocin. The famous rat experiment where they pressed the lever until they died — that’s dopamine happiness. Cocaine provides its pleasurable effect by causing a buildup of dopamine.
We get a dopamine shot when we check Instafacetwit or eat yummy foods. Nature gave us dopamine to keep us chasing the rabbit even if it’s boring and takes most of the day to catch it. We evolved to save dopamine for those moments when an important goal is within reach. Dopamine happiness, however, isn’t sustainable. If we had it all the time we’d burn out on it and keel over like B.F. Skinner’s lab rats. If you’re collapsed on the couch, keeled over with your phone and unable to get up, you might be in this hole right now. Have no fear — read on for how to get out of this mess.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with dopamine happiness. It’s great! When a chimp discovers a mango tree full of luscious fruit, the flood of dopamine ensures the location of the tree will be stored in memory for later. The problem comes in when we rely on it too much.
Endorphins are nature’s painkillers.
The body releases endorphins to make it possible for you to continue running when the tiger is chasing you, even if she’s already had a little love nibble at your ankle. You only get the boost of endorphins when you’re actively in pain or at significant perceived risk of injury, like when you’re scraping the peg of a stolen motorcycle in a hairpin turn. There’s a limit to how much of the day you can spend jumping out of airplanes or in runner’s high, so as great as euphoria is, it’s not a source of contentment.
Being of service is lasting happiness.
Oxytocin is released when you spend time with people you trust. You can’t stay in oxytocin happiness all of the time, as it wouldn’t make sense to feel it when you’re around people you don’t trust. None of the neurotransmitters of happiness are meant to be there 100% of the time. You’re looking for a balance of all of the sources of happiness, underlaid with stability provided by being in a safe home environment where you can rest and recharge… yes and have sex, too. Oxytocin is released during orgasm.
I love doing things that express care and affection the people in my life. I love loving people. I have cultivated an enjoyment of cooking, expressing gratitude, and learning to listen deeply while my partner talks. I was not born this way. You, too, can learn to enjoy being of service, a.k.a. loving people. Love is a verb, not a feeling. There is a deep, profound kind of lasting joy that comes from doing everyday tasks to care for the people around you. Being of service releases oxytocin which gives you a sense of well-being and contentedness.
Too often though, we’re chasing the quick dopamine fixes of Facegram likes, quickie sex, weed, and double bacon cheeseburgers with extra magic sauce and pickles. Don’t get me wrong, I have a soft spot in my heart for all of the above. There’s a time and place for everything. Dopamine gives hedonic pleasure which lasts only for the moment, which is why you’re exhausted from always chasing MORE. The more you rely on dopamine fixes alone though, the less time you have for activities that release oxytocin (i.e. being of service) and the more lonely, addicted, and desperate you get.
People in your life are possibly already doing lots of things to express their love to you. Not only notice what they do, express gratitude for that and anticipate what else needs to be done without needing to be asked. You take the initiative.
If you’re not sure what needs doing, instead of asking how you can help, ask your partner “how can I love you better, my dear?” They’ll probably look at you with jaw agape.
I wanna take a minute to acknowledge that this goes beyond gender. Guys, if you already have these skills, I applaud you. Ladies, if you need to up your game in these, that’s essential work for you too. If you identify as neither of these genders, you’re already taking massive agency over your life, so hats off to you. These basic human skills make relationships of any configuration work.
Being “of service” is not the same as “subservience”
Women are culturally expected to be available to be of service pretty much everywhere we go, all of the time. As thanks for our trouble, we are often viewed as subservient. We can’t opt-out without punishment either. If we’re not available to do these tasks, we’re chastised for not performing according to the unwritten script of societal expectations.
I don’t want to stop being of service to level the score. That transactional mentality doesn’t work. I want the men in my life to refuse the script of toxic masculinity that says they’re only as valuable as their career says they are. I don’t want to live in a world where no one is taking care of their of their loved ones.
I have not chosen shitty guys as romantic partners. They are all sweet, funny, kind-hearted, good guys. It’s just that after they got to be about 25 years old, society never taught them to do any better. They wake up and live lives of over-work that leave them incapable of the giving the kind of presence and nurturing I desire in a partner. They’re just as trapped by this crap system as women are. None of us are getting a good deal.
In the failing final months of one of my past romantic relationships, my good guy had fallen too far down the dopamine-fix spiral — too many months spent eating Fire Cheetos, not sleeping enough, and too much numbing out of job stress with various and sundry drugs. His body reserves were badly overdrawn. As much as I wanted to spend time with him, the fury in my body could no longer be denied. I wanted a partner who could receive and give love, and he was so exhausted that he didn’t have capacity for either.
My good guy didn’t know how to give more. He already felt like what I was asking of him was too much when I asked to be nurtured and taken care of. There was no way that he had enough time in his day to do anymore than what he was already doing. I would suggest to ask yourself — do you feel like you’re a victim when your sweetheart asks for greater nurturing, thoughtfulness, and affection? If you feel you have no more to give, it might be because you’ve been relying on quick-fix dopamine happiness. You’re not a victim of your own choices. This is worthy of a whole essay of it’s own, but for now let me just repeat it again. You are NOT a victim of your choices. This is your one and only precious life. No one is more empowered than you to make the lifestyle changes which will make space to love yourself and others.
What would have to change so you had the time and energy to be of service to those you love so you can find lasting happiness and contentment?
What would you have to say no to to make space to create that quality of attention and care? Would you have to face conflict to remove the things that suck you dry so that you can make room for the things that give you energy? Would you have to take better care of yourself by eating better and getting enough physical movement into your days? What would you have to face to start your own healing so you didn’t need those coping mechanisms anymore? > More about coping mechanisms and escaping addiction
Whatever the answer is for you, no one can do this work but you. As much as I would’ve done these things FOR my partner if it was possible, I could not. There were days I would’ve felt his pain for him if it could’ve given him a moment of happiness. Indeed, I tried. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work. Y’all, we gotta stop this. It NEVER works. You’re not here to heal your partners, you’re here to heal yourself. The best we can do is to hold a space for them to do their own healing.
I’ve made dramatic changes in my life to make it a happy one, and I’m never going back to the addictions of quick-fix happiness. I’ve never been so safe and content. I feel joy like I never knew was possible and have so much more love to give than I could’ve imagined. Truly, my life has profoundly changed, and it’s obvious to everyone who meets me.
In these dark days more than ever, we have to claim this space and carve it out for ourselves. Happiness absolutely is accessible for every one of us. We all are starting to feel it in our bones that we can’t continue in this desperation, depression, anxiety and disconnection. We need each other more than ever.
For more from me: clap, get on my list or check out my podcast, Embodied Reality, about technology, love and creativity. We interview everyone from the astrophysicist and founder of GoogleX to the Yale-educated lawyer who founded a Buddhist order of nuns in China to the creator of VR games to induce trances.