Let's get doped up
Dopamine is the chemical in the brain responsible for that feeling of satisfaction when you tick off an item on your to-do list or hit a new 5K PB. Of course, the neurotransmitter, known as the chemical messenger, is a lot more complicated than that. But I’m not a doctor so, as far as I’m concerned, dopamine is released when your brain expects a reward. And it feels bloody good.
Honestly, dopamine is pretty cool. It keeps us motivated and allows us to feel pleasure for the completion of a task. I’ve been thinking a lot more about dopamine recently, as it has a very close relationship with ADHD - more on that later.
There’s no doubt that the internet, most notably smartphones and the rise of social media, has resulted in significant changes within our brains and how we produce and release dopamine. Growing up in the 90s early 00s, I first ventured into social media as a teenager. Other than spending hours choosing my top six friends and which song I wanted to play on my MySpace profile, my experience of social media was very much limited to the desktop experience.
But nowadays, most of us are carrying around dopamine goldmines in our pockets. We’re about five minutes away from Black Mirror’s Nosedive turning into reality. Every single “like” or “reply” results in the release of dopamine. It’s really not your fault if you’re addicted to Instagram, Twitter or even Candy Crush, these platforms are designed to hook you in, and dopamine is how they do it.
As with anything I write about in this newsletter, the first step is always awareness and education. Breaking the cycle of opening a new tab and typing “Tw…” every few minutes is a challenge for me. As a generation, millennials are addicted to the dopamine rush of a new notification.
On the topic of generational relationships with technology, I do think it’s worth noting how the boomers are dealing with this whole situation. Since I grew up with the internet, even in its premature form, I developed the critical thinking necessary to navigate the internet without being robbed or tricked into leaving your life’s possessions to a Nigerian prince.
However, the baby boomers missed that vital stage of life, and seem to have developed an unwavering trust in everything their Facebook feed delivers. Of course, I’m being facetious here and I know a lot of people over 50 who aren’t likely to click on a dodgy link or share a chain status to preserve the life of their cat, but I do wonder how this sudden influx of dopamine trigger is affecting us all - particularly generations who didn’t grow up staring at a screen.
Instagram’s recent decision gives you the power to hide the number of likes on your posts is one (tiny) step in the right direction. However, let’s face it, these platforms rely on their addictive nature to keep us scrolling and, therefore, serve us more ads.
So, the next time you find yourself checking if how many likes you’ve got on your latest Instagram photo and if anyone has retweeted your cheeky quip, remember that rush you’re feeling is dopamine, and there are other ways to get it.
Without sounding like a self-help guide, you can spark a dopamine rush via a variety of methods, including exercise, sleep, writing to-do lists, cooking, playing board games and so much more. Think about what you enjoy and do more of it.
ADHD and Dopamine
Research shows that people with ADHD typically have lower levels of dopamine than their neurotypical counterparts, leading them to be more likely to carry out dopamine-seeking behaviours like gambling, substance abuse and even infidelity.
That’s not to say people with ADHD are doomed to a life of chaos. Like any neurodivergence, ADHD comes in different forms. In fact, many people with the condition don’t get diagnosed until adulthood because they don’t fit the typical profile of an ADHD kid. One of those people is my husband Craig, who was diagnosed at 29 after spending his life wondering why he couldn’t just do what everyone else seemed to find easy.
Here’s a tidbit from Craig about what it’s like being diagnosed so late in life, and how he’s coping with ADHD as an adult:
Have you ever been so obsessed with something that you can't sleep for the obsession you feel over it?
A thing that you want to do, or have, or learn about, so intently that it gnaws into your brain?
So that the only way to have a moment of peace is to just give in and allow yourself to indulge in it?
Then suddenly, one day, you awake to find you're not interested anymore. Gone.
You feel empty without it. What did you think about before that thing? How did you spend time? How can life go on without it?
Try as you might, you just can't get "it" back. Your hobby, interest or passion is just...gone.
Ellen asked me to write about ADHD for her newsletter. I'm writing it now sat on the toilet after staying up til past midnight despite being tired. Because I'm obsessed with painting models at the moment - an interest that has lasted a year. For me, that's an eternity. Most come and go in a week. Buying an electric skateboard. Researching every possible tv in our budget then spending sleepless nights weighing up each similarly specced box before we buy it. Playing almost 1000 games on chess.com in a month because I watched the Queen's Gambit.
All of these things, these fleeting interests, they reward the ADHD brain. They make me feel...at peace, but only when I'm indulging in them. When I'm not, all I can think about it getting back to the hobby or interest. Work gets shoved to the side. I ignore Ellen as she talks to me. My inner monologue is focused so intently on the "thing" that it makes everything else around me blur.
Dopamine is a drug. For neurotypical brains, it's a reward that is doled out in fair measure. For me, it's something eeked out in a cruel cat and mouse game. When the interest inexplicably fades, I fall into a listless depression until I find something else to light the spark.
Ellen asked me to talk dopamine, but really I'm talking the lack of it. The drudgery of not having a current hyperfixation, drifting along. I've managed to stick to some form of martial arts for over a decade, mainly through my own punishing force of habit - but every other interest I've ever had in my life tends to fade.
That itself makes you feel ashamed - especially when you've not got a diagnosis. Why can't you just stick at things? Why do you give stuff up? What happened to the boy who couldn't wait to do "x" hobby - you used to love that...
The lesson I've been learning all this time is that it's okay to give in to your conditions natural fluctuations at times. Dopamine release is different for us, so you've got to accept a level of understanding - you'll always be discovering new hobbies and obsessions. They may not last a week. They may last years. But there'll be another along soon - so don't give up when the depression kicks in.
And finally, remember that it's also a superpower. I mean, I've done so many hobbies now I can tell you anything from how to bake the perfect sourdough loaf through to how to backflip off a wall and land safely. That's not a bad set of lessons to have learned.
Let me know your thoughts on this week’s newsletter over on Twitter @ContentByTheSea, or reply to this email for a confidential chat.
📺 Ted Lasso (Apple TV+) - I did it. I finally gave in and watched Ted Lasso. The only reason it took me so long was that I couldn’t be bothered to sign up for yet another streaming service. I am kicking myself for waiting so long because I am absolutely obsessed with it, in love with all the characters and watched all available episodes this weekend.
🎧 Little Simz - Sometimes I Might Be Introvert - Excellent new album from a great artist. Love it.
Enjoyed this? You might like these past issues:
22 September: Have a word with yourself
15 September: Running changed my life
8 September: Okay, boomer
25 August: Bridezilla returns
18 August: Find your zen
10 August: The fear factor
3 August: You shall not pass
28 July: Recharging your mental battery
21 July: How much is too much to share
14 July: We’ve got to talk about Twitter
7 July: Meet my poison parrot