Why can’t I stop? The Dopamine effect.

You consume meI think about you all the timeI don’t want anything elseI can’t stopI’m obsessed – I can’t bear the torment – I want it all!

Any of this sound familiar? If you’re over the age of twenty-nine, then I’m guessing not so much. This is not to suggest that after said age we become emotionally void, more that our lives stabilise (via marriage, job security, or kids), and we forget how it feels to be ‘out at sea,’ so to speak. Or what it’s like to experience intense emotions on a regular basis.

I was reminded of this yesterday when listening/eavesdropping on my neighbour’s conversation with her sixteen-year-old daughter. (They were in the garden and my office window was open). From what I could gather, the daughter was having some difficulties with her boyfriend. ‘This is ridiculous,’ the mother said, ‘you need to stop checking your phone and do something else.’

Ah.. if only it were that simple.

The teen experience

From the age of twelve to around twenty-four, I lived in a state of permanent ‘emotional ping-ponging.’ That was the norm. Secondary school is, after all, one of the most intense experiences of our lives and one in which we’re exposed to behaviour that wouldn’t be tolerated as an adult. E.g. a teacher forcing you to play hockey in your knickers even though its winter! Other kids making acute observations about your appearance, and constantly being in close proximity to your crush.

Add a nice dose of puberty and exam pressure to the mix and I’d say that’s enough to knock anyone off balance. We really should give teenagers more respect in that sense. They deal with more than we give them credit for.

When I think about my first love for example, or my desire to succeed academically, obsession doesn’t even begin to cover it. I lived for that buzz.

College and university were more fun, but still rocky from an emotional perspective. After all, I had no idea who I was, (plus I was living with an undiagnosed mental illness).

Understanding the nature of the beast 

I think I was thirty when I first realised what ‘dopamine’ was. (Bear with me).

I’ve always had what others might call an ‘addictive’ personality, and I’m drawn to extremes.
E.g. I don’t want a glass I want the bottle… I want to sleep for ten hours, or not at all… I want to write a novel in 24 hours, and I want the whole f**king cake NOW. My husband finds this frustrating and at times overwhelming, being the complete opposite and all.

I also have a fear of mediocracy and boredom, but we’ll save that for another time…

The most intense of my extremes relates to ‘people.’ In the words of Noah Calhoun, (from The Notebook) “when I see something that I like, I LOVE it. I go CRAZY for it!” Perhaps it’s because I don’t truly bond with many people, so when I do it electrifies me. I’ll do anything for them and desire their interaction like crack.   

Back to Dopamine though. By definition, it’s ‘pleasure.’ That’s it. We all experience this when we drink, smoke, gamble, buy stuff and bang… and like most good things, it’s addictive.   

This is why I cringed when listening to my neighbour’s conversation. She’d obviously forgotten what it’s like to experience ‘the hit’ and how hard it is to resist. ‘You need to stop checking your phone and do something else.’ Are you f**king kidding me? It has little to do with self-control and more to do with biology. Afterall, the emotional brain overrules the rational part 80% of the time. It’s why we do things that we know we shouldn’t.  

Once I figured out what Dopamine was and how it works, things felt less chaotic. It certainly explained my track record of impulsive behaviour and my attraction to discord, (I find it as inspiring as happiness. As though I’ve been struck by a jolt of electricity and I’m wide awake).

I’ve found that the key is knowing when to stop… but also not giving way to guilt or shame. I’m very passionate by nature, it’s a central part of my personality, that has served me well. I can’t just switch that off. However, I can learn how to channel it.

How I deal with Dopamine

  • I feel it – There’s no point pretending that I can control it, or block it out, because I can’t… especially the cravings/withdrawal. So I indulge the sensations for a while, BUT (and this is very important), I pause before taking any action. E.g. Do you really need to reply to this email/message right now? Will it make a difference?
    When I need reminding of this I look at the tattoo on my left wrist. ‘WAIT.’
    .
  • I cut myself off – Perhaps by letting my phone/laptop die, deleting social media apps, muting people, or pouring a bottle of wine down the sink. This might sound extreme, but it gives me a sense of peace. I can’t act if it isn’t available to me. It just helps me to re-center while the dopamine ‘storm’ passes.
    .
  • I take positive steps in advance – E.g. Rather than buying a regular bottle of wine, I’ll buy a miniature one and some soda water to bulk it out. This way, I can enjoy the treat at a more sensible pace. I’ll make plans to talk to someone I love, which I know will give me a healthy boost. Or invest in some positive distractions such as; a documentary on the origins of vampire mythology, (you heard me), or some kind of app word game.

Don’t get wrong, I still fall prey to temptation on occasion…. and I love it. But with patience and self-kindness I’m also able to work through it.

My bestselling book ‘We’re All Mad Here‘ is available online and in all good bookshops.

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6 Comments

  1. Mark Murphy
    October 29, 2020 / 5:57 pm

    Not that I want to be picky on most of what you’re saying … but I’m well beyond the age of twenty nine and I can assure you, we neither forget “how it feels to be ‘out at sea” nor “what it’s like to experience intense emotions on a regular basis”!!! If you think there’s some kind of ‘end point’ when life stabilises then I’m sorry, you’re in for a surprise!!

    • Rachel
      November 17, 2020 / 2:10 pm

      I agree with this…not everyone’s life finds that kind of stability. Not everyone gets married, or perhaps they experience divorce or bereavement, placing you once again in that “teenage” place where waves of emotion can hit you, only at this point it becomes more socially unacceptable, and therefore in a way harder (and a breeding ground for social anxiety) as we are supposed to be able to deal with it as we are “grown-ups”….while at the same time dealing with everything else that adults have to deal with in life.

      Having said that, this blog is wonderful. I only found it today, and it really resonates….the practical advice trumps the inspirational Instagram posts. I too have thought “how the fuck do you be kind to yourself?!” One of the great mysteries of the universe, along with how to fold a fitted sheet. Thank you, I will be buying the book.

      • allmadhere
        Author
        November 17, 2020 / 2:14 pm

        Really interesting point, well made. Thanks Rachel 😊

  2. allmadhere
    Author
    October 29, 2020 / 6:19 pm

    I’m not suggesting that we don’t experience intense emotions after the age of 29 sir, (I’m 34 myself)… but I think you underestimate the constant wave of emotional situations that teens find themselves in daily. Adults have more control & gain an amount of stability that teens can’t access.

  3. Yes
    October 30, 2020 / 7:47 am

    Hi there!

    This really resonated. Would love it if you could do a few more posts on this topic. It would really help (me) to read about what it looks like to live through a difficult ‘cutting off’ process. How to live through ‘failing’ at a cutting off process, multiple times. I struggle with this myself (am 33). When my mental health plummets, I cling to addictions to feel better (endless sleep, junk food, internet), and lose the ability to moderate. That in turn reduces my faith in myself and my ability to ‘fight’/cajole/coerce myself to healthier coping strategies, which is a debilitating feeling. (I find my ‘fight’ eventually, but it’s hell while it’s absent.)

    Apologies for the super lengthy comment! Have thoroughly enjoyed your writings, book, and blog/website from its inception.
    Best wishes!

    • allmadhere
      Author
      October 30, 2020 / 8:43 am

      This is so interesting, thank you for taking the time to comment. I will absolutely make a point of re-visiting this topic.

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