We Are All Addicts
The neurotransmitter Dopamine is released in our brains, and elevates our mood, when we achieve short term goals and accomplish tasks that reinforce our survival. When we successfully track our prey, when we find what we have been looking for, when we finish our to do list, when we do things that increase our chances of survival and thus increase our chances of propagation Dopamine gives us a rush and rewards us for our successful behavior. On the flip side, especially in our material and externally focused society, we can abuse this endogenous “Buzz”, and literally become Dopamine Addicts! We abuse Dopamine when we over focus on activities that stimulate its release and production. Activities might include endlessly playing video games, over working, over shopping, gossiping, over eating, compulsively checking your iPhone, endlessly cleaning, endless checklists of mundane and often perfunctory tasks and the like. ADD, lack of focus, anxiety and many neuroses are often assigned to those who, in fact, have a Dopamine addiction. In our money and success driven culture we are often rewarded with bonuses or commissions, or good grades and awards, that require us to focus on immediate results. While these short term gains give us a quick Dopamine hit, the long term success and bonding of any individual, or organizations culture, is not reinforced but in fact made weaker. Dopamine surges do not bond us, but actually separate us and in fact can hold us prisoner!
This physiological mechanism of abuse and addiction is the exact same mechanism that other more pernicious addictions such as elicit drug addiction and alcoholism. Many of us are truly Dopamine addicts, but because our drug of choice is endogenous and unknown, our malady goes unnoticed and untreated. We may be fully aware, and even joke about, what we do to acquire our fix, but we assign our idiosyncrasy a more benign description. I love to shop, I’m a slave to fashion, I was born to clean, my work is my life, are some common justifications and are often used to dismiss, minimize and reinforce our unhealthy behavior. While most of these addictions do not ultimately lead to death, as is often the endpoint in drug and alcohol addiction, they certainly lead to disconnection from the self and our relationships.
If we all adopted the empowering belief that we are committed to thoughts and actions that enhance connection not block it, with the self and those we love, our life experience would be greatly enhanced.
With this understanding one can begin to empathize with, and be less judgmental of, traditional and more repellant forms of addiction and abuse. We are all attracted to the high we get from our over indulgence of whatever modality gives us our fix. What makes a compulsive “neat freak” any better than an alcoholic? The goal and mechanism of physiological dependency and addiction is in fact the same. Nobody wakes up one day and thinks, I think I will become a heroine addict today! It isn’t weakness of character or a flawed character that drives us to become addicts no matter our drug of choice. In fact it is the very opposite motivation that drives us to abuse in the first place! The deepest longing, of all we frail humans, is to love and be loved! We become addicts when we choose the wrong behavior to achieve our souls deepest longing, the feeling of the “high” is our replacement for the ecstasy of love that we all desire at a soul level! We should adopt a more compassionate and less judgmental view of addiction and addicts as we, ourselves, are most likely addicted to Dopamine to one degree or another.
There was this dude from Nazareth who said, “take the beam out of your own eye before you point your finger at the splinter in your neighbors. 😉
Another neurotransmitter, Serotonin, is released in higher concentrations when we receive recognition for accomplishing important long term goals or experience important life benchmarks. It is our own personal endogenous Prozac, as it provides us with positive feelings minus the side effects. When we receive a award, get a promotion, get married, have a baby, win a championship, graduate and receive a diploma and the like we get a rush of Serotonin. It fills us with feelings of pride, confidence, and accomplishment. We also receive spikes in Serotonin when our loved ones have these same successes. In this way Serotonin, as it increases in both the one who achieves the success and in those that are happy or excited for them, acts to reinforce the bond between us. Serotonin bonds families, teams and organizations and promotes healthy relationships. Serotonin is released when we truly feel like our status is increasing. We often attempt, in vain, to attain higher levels of Serotonin by attempting to artificially elevate our status and desirability by buying designer clothes, expensive cars, fancy homes and marrying desirable spouses and the like. These are ineffective strategies because biologically Serotonin is intended to reinforce relationships, not to elevate ones status or prestige in isolation.
Oxytocin is a hormone produced and released by the posterior pituitary gland in the the center of the brain. It is most commonly known for inducing contractions of the uterus during child birth, but it is also extremely important and effective at enhancing the bond between both mother and child and between humans in general. It also boosts our immune systems, inhibits addiction and stimulates creativity. Oxytocin gives us the feelings of empathy, trust and reinforces the caring feelings and bonds between us. When we touch others physically and figuratively we both get spikes in Oxytocin levels in our bodies. In organizational settings Oxytocin is the biochemical marker that true Leaders help stimulate in their employees. When a person truly feels that there superior “has their back” then they can feel safe, be creative and achieve much for themselves and the organization. True Leaders give their time, their trust, and actually serve those they lead. Leaders know those they lead and genuinely care for, mentor and inspire them. They care enough to invest the one thing that can not be bought, time! Texts, emails and other recent forms of sterile communication don’t cut it and do nothing to promote bonds or Oxytocin levels. Oxytocin release is regulated by the intelligence of our bodies and our exquisite design. We can’t fool the system that is intended to increase our very chance of survival as a species. Oxytocin is released when we hug, shake hands, and selflessly give. It is released in both or all individuals that experience the physical or emotional experience of giving or “touching”. It reinforces bonding and we can consciously increase our levels by touching others or hugging more often and by seeking opportunities to give ourselves and our time to others.
Cortisol, in marked contrast to Oxytocin, is the stress hormone and prepares our bodies to respond to a perceived danger or threat. The Flight or Fight response is mediated by this hormone that is released by the supra adrenal glands. Physiologically it transfers glucose from the bloodstream into muscles, increases heart rate, and sets us up for optimum physical activity. When we are chronically anxious not only do our blood levels increase but are immune system can become compromised, our ability to heal is lessened, our digestion and GI tract becomes out of balance, and we feel uneasy. Most disease processes are a result of or aggravated by chronically elevated Cortisol levels. Cortisol actually blocks the positive effects of Oxytocin so not only are we feeling bad in general, or out rightly ill, our relationships are lessened as our biochemical ally is made ineffective. When an organization is not truly led, it tends to be unsafe to one degree or another. This then resonates throughout the culture and the individuals in the group tend to become more self protective and anxious. Cortisol effectively courses through the bloodstream of the organization and the system is sick. Effective leadership is the only cure and in its absence the organization either underperforms or becomes a casualty of unhealthy brain chemistry!
So the take away messages are:
Moderate your Dopamine addiction and take responsibility for the quality of your life and relationships by accepting where you are out of balance and commit to activities that enhance your connections with yourself and others.
Discover ways to decrease your stress by removing aggravating things from your life.
Work for true leaders or be one yourself!
Make time daily to center your being.
Consciously elevate your Oxytocin levels by hugging more and giving your time to others at every opportunity.
Our power of choice allows us to control our brain chemistry, the quality of our relationships and ultimately our life experience.