3 actions for improving your daily life, backed by science
Let’s talk about having a lean dopaminergic system, using your brain as a simulator, and seeking relief by using TODO lists.
Being on a dopamine diet
It’s incredible how much our actions and behaviors are driven by complex chemical processes that happen in our bodies every second of our life, but there is one that impacted us the most, especially in the modern era.
Let’s start from the fact that everyone likes being rewarded; when something that we like happens we feel good, satisfied, with a purpose in our life and when we feel that sensation of wellness we start looking for that pleasure more and more… we can say that being rewarded reinforces certain behaviors and that’s totally true, starting from a physiological point of view.
What’s behind this (so-called) reward system, in fact, is a neurotransmitter called “dopamine” and there are good chances that it’s not news for you.
Dopamine plays a crucial role in motivating, learning, and acting actively toward something and a lack of it can cause a plethora of issues, things like:
- Behavioral disturbances
- Brain fog
- Mood swings
- Delusional behavior
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Low self-esteem
- Suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm
- Low sex drive
NOTE: Each one of the issues listed above can be the result of many other things. If you feel worried about something do not hesitate to seek help, a therapist can help you out and there is nothing wrong with it.
So far the motto related to dopamine seems to be “the more the better” and that would be true if only we were not equipped with a safety net…
We are talking about a mechanism, homeostasis, which prevents our biochemistry to go nuts.
Homeostasis: A property of cells, tissues, and organisms that allows the maintenance and regulation of the stability and constancy needed to function properly. Homeostasis is a healthy state that is maintained by the constant adjustment of biochemical and physiological pathways. — https://www.rxlist.com/homeostasis/definition.htm
What does it mean in the context of our dopaminergic system?
All pleasure activities cause dopamine levels to spike in one way or another, and in response, the brain weakens or eliminates the receptors built to respond to the chemical.
That means that the individual needs more to elicit the same surge of dopamine.
That’s when the concept of a “dopamine diet” takes place.
We as generation X/Y/Z are surrounded and bombarded by (unnatural) pleasure triggers; certain drugs, food/beverages high in sugar, porn, social media, advertisements.
The industry knows very well this mechanism and most of the products that we use or consume, on a daily basis, are designed to force us into a state of constant dopamine craving.
Being on a “dopamine diet” means taking a recurring break from the activities that we feel are starting to become oddly compelling.
Let’s call it a detox period to go through, so to allow the dopamine receptors to “calm down”.
NOTE: It’s fine to skip social media and candies for some time during the week… but if we are talking about drug addiction that’s a different story and should be treated seriously with the help of a professional.
One helpful approach to achieve a good “dopaminergic hygiene” is to shift the habits for the good, which means doing things that we usually don’t like or don’t want to do and getting a small reward once achieved (doing something that is pleasant to us, possibly a healthy thing). By doing that you are actually hacking your brain by rewiring its circuitry ;-)
Your brain is a simulator, use it
Is it ever happened to you to have strange, vivid, and intense dreams? If yes, probably you also wondered to yourself how that’s possible.
When you were a kid, how much time did you spend pretending to be an astronaut, a scientist, a crazy driver, or whatever a child's mind can bring out?
How many times, once grew up, you daydreamed about having that shiny car parked in front of you or dating that handsome man met in the elevator a few minutes before?
These are all good examples of how powerful our mind is. We are not equipped with a mere block of flesh able only to receive signals from the outside and give them meaning.
In our skull we host the most powerful computer possible, capable of abstracting complex concepts in a split of a second, recalling memories dated decades, and most importantly visualizing things that do not exist.
“Visualization” is a powerful cognitive tool and a helpful skill to master when you want to be prepared for an event or foster something that you are learning.
Many athletes use this technique before competitions, many musicians are used to visualizing scales and movements when far from the instrument and really everyone can take advantage of it for most of the activities, especially in anxiogenic situations.
Be careful to not overdo it though or you might end up creating too much expectation that, if not met, can bring you to a blue day :-)
Experiment with your imagination and find your balance. Try to visualize things before fixing them, for example, so you can be better prepared for what might happen, you can spot what you need way before, review the process many times defining different plans, and finally choose what you think is the best one before taking concrete action.
We said that we are inside the most powerful computer in the Universe (how cool is that though) but it doesn’t mean that we have infinite resources.
It’s true that we have quadrillions of synapses but yet we are susceptible to stress, anxiety, and burnout which is why you really want to seek an as constant as possible state of inner peace.
Inner peace can be achieved in several ways and everyone might have his/her own best and most efficient ones, though there is one thing that you can find very helpful;
writing down things that you don’t want to store in your mind, or also known as, having a TODO list.
You can use a digital calendar but also a paper or a notebook work just fine.
The concept is quite straightforward, at the moment that you write something down you accept to lose the focus on that particular thing, you stop anticipating the event (which might be anxiogenic for someone) and most importantly you reserve mental resources for something more important.
There is also a plus that connects to the dopamine thing said before… many experiences a sense of pleasure (reward) in marking something as “done”.
Why not give it a try :-)
At this point, I hope that I triggered in you that sense of complexity about ourselves that we often take for granted and forget about.
Finally, here is a list of publications/articles to expand the concepts listed above.
Dopamine D1 signaling organizes network dynamics underlying working memory
Dopamine role in learning and action inference
Dopamine in motivational control: rewarding, aversive, and alerting
Dopamine homeostasis: brain functional connectivity in reward deficiency syndrome
The Role of Dopamine and Its Dysfunction as a Consequence of Oxidative Stress
Total Number of Synapses in the Adult Human Neocortex
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