What are your resolutions this year?
Exercise more, eat less sugar, drink less alcohol, loose a few pounds, sleep more, work smarter – all of these are wonderful for our health, and yet they are so difficult to implement. We make resolutions and after a while we seem like a different person and don’t understand the urgency and motivation of our past self. You are not alone. In fact, changing behaviors for good is so hard that there is an entire field of study surrounding behavior change. There are a few tricks that the science of behavior change has found that make it more likely for us to change our behavior.
What is Dopamine?
One of the main drivers of behavior is dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter that leads to motivation, and the drive to take action, as well as happy feelings when we accomplish something or when our reward centers are triggered. Dopamine is released when you have a tasty treat, coffee, or when you play video games. Dopamine is also released when we workout, clean the house, or otherwise complete a task. The most interesting function of dopamine for behavior change is that it makes us seek behaviors. For example, think about your morning. What is it that helps you to get up and going? Maybe the thought of coffee that you will pick up on your way to work? Once we have had that coffee dopamine helps us to continue to seek more dopamine.
The catch with dopamine is that some (dangerous!) behaviors trigger a very large spike in dopamine, while others provide a smaller amount of dopamine. If we engage mostly in high dopamine behaviors, we need more dopamine to “function” normally and have enough motivation to get everyday tasks completed. The dopamine response of finishing a task is not sufficient anymore to provide the dopamine response that we sought, so we are not motivated to engage in these normal tasks. We may still do them because we need to, but it takes a lot of effort. Instead of having the drive to complete everyday tasks, we are motivated to engage in behaviors that will result in the very large dopamine response.
One classic, yet extreme example is drug addiction. Cocaine provides such a large dopamine response that cannot be matched by any other natural behaviors such as working out, doing something for a friend, cleaning the house, or even having a big piece of cake with extra strong coffee. As a result, the brain will make us seek this large of a response, which can only be achieved by using more cocaine. This can lead to the typical pathology of addiction, where anything else such as keeping up with basic family or work responsibilities, hygiene, or even food intake are neglected to seek more cocaine. Nothing else will provide this dopamine response, and once it has been achieved the cycle of seeking starts again. The only way to get out of the cycle is to increase the sensitivity to dopamine or decrease the threshold of dopamine. There is only one way which is a dopamine detox, a very uncomfortable process of avoiding the mega dopamine source until the brain has repaired the dopamine receptors. When he dopamine receptors are restored to a higher sensitivity, the brain will help us seek normal dopamine behaviors which include keeping up with responsibilities.
Here is what we can learn from these extreme cases: The fewer high dopamine behaviors we engage in, the lower the dopamine threshold we need to reach to be motivated and driven. The higher the dopamine response of the behavior that we are trying to avoid, the more painful the dopamine detox is. It can range from uncomfortable urges to physical withdrawal symptoms.
What is dopamine detox?
A more relatable example may be processed foods, sugar, or TV watching. If we eat sweets and candy multiple times a day, we find it hard to skip the candy for a day. If we combine this kind of behavior with things like TV watching, other processed foods, and other quickly rewarding behaviors, simple tasks become more difficult, such as emptying the dishwasher or folding laundry. Emptying the dishwasher does not nearly reach the threshold of dopamine that we have built with the combination of immediately rewarding behaviors involving processed food and sedentary entertainment. The solution is a dopamine detox, which can be done in a day, a week, a few weeks, and also regularly. One day of unpalatable foods, everyday tasks, and nothing but water to drink. You can also do a dopamine detox over time, slowly decreasing the frequency of higher dopamine behaviors, or the amount of higher dopamine foods and drinks. The detox can be particularly helpful after the holidays to help us jumpstart the new year of successful work and better health.
Once you have decreased your dopamine threshold to a normal level, you will find that your body seeks behaviors that were part of your new year’s resolution, such as working out, eating that salad instead of a burger, getting those tasks at work done, and cleaning up immediately. As a result you may lose some weight, not get so winded going up the stairs and improve your cardiovascular fitness. Until then, remember: One breath, one rep, one day at a time!