There are countless reasons people decide to pick up a drink or drug. You might want to feel something or you might want to feel nothing. You might want to feel the rush of dopamine, the “high” that drugs provide, or you might want to level out the emotions you’re already experiencing. In most cases, you want to feel good and that’s the type of feeling a drug gives you, but there are obvious drawbacks and risks to taking drugs. Fortunately, there are ways to increase your dopamine levels and get that good feeling naturally. You don’t need drugs to feel happy or “high.”
What does dopamine do?
Dopamine is a common label that you might have heard in pop culture. It’s been associated with drug addiction, adrenaline, and the science of the brain. According to Psychology Today, dopamine is a neurotransmitter or a chemical in the brain responsible for transmitting signals between the nerve cells in the brain.
When dopamine neurons are activated, they release dopamine. One of the main roles for dopamine neurons is to drive reward-related behavior. They can become activated when something good happens unexpectedly. For example, when food is found and consumed, the dopamine levels in the brain increase. Additionally, many abused drugs cause the release of dopamine an effect that is thought to contribute to their addictiveness.
Drugs actually flood the circuit with dopamine. Overstimulating the system with drugs creates a euphoric effect which then reinforces the drug use behavior. Your brain then becomes wired to repeat these activities by associating the drug-using activities with pleasure or reward. The reward circuit is activated, the brain recognizes something important is happening and should be remembered, then it teaches us to do it again and again until it becomes second nature. Drugs stimulate the same circuit and this is why drugs are abused in the same way. Some drugs can release 2 to 10 times the number of natural rewards, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In some cases, this can occur immediately and the effects can last much longer than those produced by natural rewards.
How can you increase dopamine levels naturally?
Here are some ways you can achieve dopamine levels naturally without disrupting your pleasure center in a negative way.
It seems like we hear more and more about meditation every day – the quieting of the mind in our chaotic world. But how exactly does meditating increase dopamine levels? When you mediate your body becomes aware of itself, you relax and free the mind. This allows you to feel calm and pleasurable. Dopamine is released when pleasure is felt.
Exercise is one of the oldest “natural highs” in the book! They don’t call it a “runner’s high” for nothing. Exercise has an antidepressive effect, releases endorphins, and taps into your brain’s pleasure center. It’s also a stress reliever, but exercise can also become addictive.
According to the New York Times, when you listen to music, dopamine is released in the striatum, an older part of the brain found in other vertebrates as well. Not only is dopamine released when the music comes to a climactic moment, but also several seconds before, a time known as the anticipation phase. If you’ve really felt good while listening to music, this is why.
Finishing a book
Reading a book that you just can’t put down is satisfying, but there is nothing more satisfying than completing the book. Dopamine is released when we complete simple tasks that we get to check off the list. There is a reason completing your to-do list feels strangely nice.
Creating a constant stream of new goals
You don’t want a dopamine hangover. You don’t want your natural highs to be super high and leave you back down low at the end. By constantly creating new goals before current ones are finished, you’ll be able to have a steady stream of achievement and dopamine that co-occur. This can include celebrating small wins, encouraging team members and employees with a bonus or email, and actively encouraging future motivation.
Sex, or more specifically, an orgasm has been linked to natural highs, brings pleasure, and feeling of deep intimacy with your partner. Sex is a stress reliever and can even increase drowsiness for a good night’s sleep afterward. But sex can also be used to replace an addiction. Its highs can be chased just like drugs. Life is about balance, and that includes sex.
The practice of yoga is a mental, spiritual, and physical combination. Breathing techniques will help you concentrate on aligning your spirit with your body. This can make you feel calm, less stressed, and encourage your pleasure center to crave more yoga. It’s not a coincidence that yoga and 12-step therapy both have a mind-body-spirit connection.
Cook and enjoy a meal
Just like exercise and sex, food can be overdone. But in healthy portions, cooking and enjoying a meal can bring you great pleasure. Not only is completing the steps of a recipe satisfying but enjoying the flavors and smells of a good meal can be intoxicating. Consuming delicious food increases dopamine naturally. That is also why some people become addicted to food. Be sure to keep a balanced diet and plan your meals ahead.
The best part about all of these revelations is: drugs never have been and never will be the answer. You can feel good naturally, using all the suggestions above.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.