Understanding the dopamine and addiction connection

Have you ever wondered what makes something addictive?

As I was reading Dopamine Nation by Dr. Anna Lembke, she talks about how dopamine (the feel good chemical) is the cause of addictions and that we are all living in a world designed to optimize and increase our dopamine production (such as instant gratification, easy access to food/shopping/etc.).

Throughout the book, she uses addictions as a way for all of us to learn lessons on managing our dopamine exposure and improving our lives.

Photo by Catalin Pop | Accessed on Unsplash.com

Main impacts

Here are the main topics or themes that stood out to me:

  1. Anything can be addictive
  2. Pain and pleasure are connected
  3. Tell the truth

Continue reading to find out more about each.

Anything can be addictive

In this book, Dr. Anna Lembke discusses how our world revolves around dopamine and how it affects us. Specifically, she discusses addictions, as they are just an extreme version of what we all go through with dopamine, and provide us lessons on how to handle our own dependence on dopamine.

You can get addicted to anything.

Basically, anything can cause you to release dopamine. Or more specifically it’s often the anticipation of something that releases dopamine. Dopamine is what you get addicted to, and anything can start to trigger dopamine if it gets you excited. Somethings are more pleasurable (think sex, drugs, alcohol) and are more common addictions, but you also hear of people getting addicted to odd things (think of the tv show My Strange Addiction).

With far greater connectivity and the fast paced life we live now, there are so many more opportunities for us to get addicted to things or to become dependent on dopamine. Addiction can be to anything from drugs, sex-related activities, positive feedback through social media, working out, or even reading romance novels. Anything that provides you pleasure, excitement, or dopamine can become a source of addiction.

Addition can be encouraged or enabled by many things. Some people are more prone to addiction (for a variety of reasons), but anyone can get addicted. Addiction is not dependent on having specific genes or being in a certain situations, it can affect anyone.

This book talks about how we can learn from addicts to better understand how we deal with the large amounts of dopamine and instant gratification in our everyday life. This universality of addiction and dopamine dependence is why we can all relate to some extent what addicts go through.

Taking a step away

The first step in dealing with addiction is to abstain from whatever you’re addicted to. That’s the only way to fully understand the impact it’s creating on your life and if a problem you’re experiencing is from that addiction or something else.

Usually an addiction grows gradually, with you needing more and more to satisfy your craving, so it’s only by abstaining that you are able to see how much it’s really affecting you. I believe she usually suggests abstaining for at least a month, if not longer, to get past the withdrawal stage and see how you really feel.

If you are struggling with addiction, please seek professional help. If you find you’re starting to become reliant or dependent on something (maybe social media), it might be worthwhile to take a break or find ways to distance yourself from it.

Pain and pleasure are connected

Pain and pleasure are connected, but too much of either is a bad thing. Avoiding pain can cause pain, and pain can sometimes cause pleasure but too much can also be addicting.

What a strange thing that which men call pleasure seems to be, and how astonishing the relation it has with what is thought to be its opposite, namely pain! A man cannot have both at the same time. Yet if he pursues and catches the one, he is almost always bound to catch the other also, like two creatures with one head.


There are benefits to experiencing a bit of pain. Pain can provide some pleasure, and even make you more in tuned with pleasure by noticing it more clearly. You even get indirect dopamine from pain, which is longer lasting than the dopamine you get from pleasure. Also, you can become less vulnerable to pain if you’re exposed to small amounts, making you more resilient. Finally, once you feel less pain (based on exposure to it) you can actually gain prolonged relaxation and joy.

But you don’t want too much pain, as you can get addicted to pain and start to see less positive results.

One strong example of the impact of pain on pleasure and progress is exercise. There are so many studies showing the profound impact that exercise can have on our lives, that a bit of pain or discomfort from physical exertion can provide so many benefits (well being, mood, health, etc.). Even just a 30 min walk each day can provide great benefits. Exercise doesn’t have to be extreme, you just need a bit of movement to see results. But too much exercise, especially when it’s too painful, is bad for you and you’ll stop seeing progress or benefits because you’re not giving your body time to heal.

Interestingly, it used to be quite common to treat pain with more pain, such as cupping, blisters, scraping, bleeding, etc. Some are still practiced today in traditional medicines. It’s also commonly understood that one pain can be reduced by introducing another source of pain, as it distracts from the initial pain.

Pain can serve a purpose, but as with anything, you don’t want too much pain.

Tell the truth

Part of what helped people with addictions heal was the power of radical honesty.

When they were completely honest with friends, family and partners around them, it built back the trust they had lost. Radical honesty was especially important because people who struggle with addiction tend to lie a lot to hide their addiction or to fuel their addiction, some even become addicted to lying.

Once you start being honest about what you’re doing and why, then people can start trusting you again. Even if you slip up or if something comes to light from a previous addiction, once you tell the truth it lets the other person know that you’re willing to be honest and it gives them less reason to doubt you.

Radical honest can also cultivate intimacy, which can provide its own source of dopamine. Being honest helps develop relationships and can bring you closer to each other. However, if honesty is faked or used to exploit others, it can backfire and create even more distance.

You can’t fake the honesty and hope to see the same results. These benefits only come from being honest with those you are rebuilding relationships.

Final thoughts

This was really insightful on how to deal with addiction and the struggles that everyone goes through. I never fully realized that anything can become an addiction, and that really opened my eyes to how we all experience the world.

It also highlighted how our current world is ripe for addiction. We live in a world that moves so fast, with access to more content and things than ever before. Even normal parts of everyday life like social media and email are so instantaneous and have so much potential for emotional impacts.

I found the book relevant not just for those that are struggling with addiction or who know someone struggling, but relevant to everyone. I think it helps build empathy for others and provides tools to notice when you’re getting on a slippery slope towards addiction. It also highlights how everyday life stimulates dopamine (instant access to stimulating food or people’s attention) and how they may impact you.


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