spring cleaning | dopamine + desire
What I love about brain science: it makes us change our minds. This week, I came across a piece about dopamine on NPR that hit some familiar notes.
Every night, when it was time to turn off the screen and get ready for bed, I would hear an endless stream of “But Mamas.” “But Mama, just five more minutes. But Mama, after this one show … but Mama … but Mama … but Mama.”
Yeah. Throwing my son under the bus this week.
When he was little, we allowed the kids to watch 30 minutes of television a night—usually Arthur the Aardvark. (Yes, we still quote lines from that show, especially Muffy’s.)
Then we made the mistake of not hitting “off” in time. What?!? There’s another episode on after this one?!? And the drama began.
We decided that “live” TV had to go and switched to strictly DVDs. (I think his sister might still blame him a little bit for that, 20+ years later.)
Somehow, it was easier to manage one episode of the Wiggles or the Backyardigans on a disc than on a channel. (Yes, we can still sing some of those songs.)
dopamine gone rogue
The previous reading of dopamine-fueled situations that cause tantrums in children goes like this: dopamine is a “happiness molecule” that we are driven to seek out. And when we get a hit of it, we keep coming back for more because we experience pleasure from it.
So in theory, we should be deliriously happy after hours of bingeing shows, eating donuts, scrolling our social media feeds. But are we?
[S]tudies show that over time, people can end up not liking the activities that trigger big surges in dopamine. “If you talk to people who spend a lot of time shopping online or, going through social media, they don’t necessarily feel good after doing it,” Samaha says. “In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that it’s quite the opposite, that you end up feeling worse after than before.”
The new version: dopamine triggers desire, not pleasure. And apparently, it’s easier to replace pleasure than desire.
dopamine and parenting
Doucleff offers four tips for “anti-dopamine parenting”—and they’re as valid for parenting ourselves as they are for parenting our offspring!
So if you’re looking to clean up your relationship with dopamine, here are her tips with my variations.
wait 5 minutes
In my Stewarding Emotional Eating™ program, I share an astonishing insight into most run-of-the-mill emotions: they usually last less than 20 minutes if allowed to run their course.
Think back to the toddler: if we don’t interfere with the tantrum or the high, it’s usually pretty short-lived.
So whether you want that donut or find yourself reaching for the remote, try walking away and giving it some time.
look for “goldilocks” activities
What activities give you just the right amount of dopamine—not too much nor too little?
Can you have half the donut? Or do you need to find something “more virtuous” that’s also sweet? (Dates or other dried fruit are amazing for this!)
Can you allow yourself one episode of a TV show? Or do you need to try reading instead?
The answer to this may be hard to find, and it may take some experimentation.
Keep reflecting on how you feel after the activity:
- Happy and relaxed and uplifted? You may have found the goldilocks amount.
- Frustrated and anxious and negative about yourself and your world? Keep experimenting—with curiousity, not judgment!
This tip goes back to the distinction between methods and principles.
Doucleff suggests limiting sugary foods in the home and designating screens to certain spaces and times. The challenge here is that we can limit what’s in our homes … and there’s a big world out there full of donuts and opportunities to whip out our devices.
And the point is that we can use this method (limiting what’s in our environment) to find our way toward living in alignment with our principle (being someone who makes healthy food choices and is not addicted to a mobile device).
It’s like gradually retraining our palate to desire sweets less rather than trying to quit cold turkey.
try a habit makeover
Charles Duhigg wrote about this in The Power of Habit: changing a habit involves changing the activity that lies between trigger and reward. Because the triggers will always be there.
Want to make a change around the dopamine/desire loop? A few of us are able to “quit cold turkey”—and they are in the minority. I encourage clients to make the better choice 50% of the time.
If you can choose the dried fruit one out of two times, that’s a great start. Same with reading or going online to do something educational/constructive rather than scrolling endlessly.
When you’re comfortable with 50%, move up to 75%, then 80%, then 90%. Some of us may never reach making the better choice 100% of the time, and that’s okay. Others—especially those with addictive personalities—may need to move completely away from the poorer choice or be dragged back into the loop.
make the connection
We are, as young people say these days, grown-@$$ adults. Which means that whether our parents practiced anti-dopamine parenting or not, whether they parented well or not, whether they are still alive or not—it’s now our job to parent ourselves. And that means we can be the parent we need/want—one who encourages us toward living in alignment with our principles, always with curiosity and never with judgment.
And: the next cohort of the Stewarding Emotional Eating™ program will kick off this fall in case you need some help applying anti-dopamine parenting to your relationship with food!