Dopamine is a neurotransmitter chemical that is released in the brain.  It is sometimes called the “motivation molecule” as it can boost our concentration and motivation.  Dopamine is also responsible for our pleasure-reward system and gives us that great buzz of satisfaction when we achieve something we have set our sights on.

Because of its links to the pleasure-reward system, dopamine has a bit of a bad reputation. Behaviours such as alcoholism, drug-misuse, compulsive gambling and binge-eating can all lead to a release of dopamine in the brain and it is the feel-good boost that dopamine provides that can lead to addiction.

However, dopamine can be released in the brain in a multitude of different ways, many of which are perfectly healthy.  In the post, E is for Exercise, we explored how physical exercise leads to the release of dopamine (and a number of other feel-good chemicals) in the brain.  The “runner’s high” experienced by people after exercise is partly thanks to the boost of dopamine.  Best of all, the exercise you take does not have to be strenuous. Low- and no-impact exercise like walking, tai chi and yoga can also lead to a release of feel-good neurotransmitters.

As already mentioned, dopamine is part of the pleasure-reward system and so can be released through engaging in activities which we find enjoyable. This might be playing a game or knitting a scarf, drawing a picture or writing a poem. If you get pleasure out of doing it, your brain will release dopamine.

Dopamine is also released by taking on new challenges and working towards them. Listening to music might be enjoyable, but learning to play a new instrument is more of a challenge and is, ultimately, more satisfying. It is possible to train your dopamine reward-system by setting yourself a goal and working towards it, spending a little bit of time practicing or working on it each day.

In “Four Ways to Click”, Amy Banks M.D. explores how engaging in positive relationships with other people can also lead to a dopamine boost. She believes that the hectic pace of modern life encourages us to live separate, fiercely independent lives.  Unfortunately, this leads to people being increasingly socially isolated or disconnected from others.  When not receiving the dopamine boost from positive relationships, the primary healthy source, people will seek out the dopamine boost in unhealthy, self-destructive ways.

This doesn’t mean we have to live like monks and wholly abstain from alcohol or sex or chocolate.  For many of us, those things are a source of pleasure and, as long as we are mindful, do not develop into a destructive addiction. It is worth thinking about the healthy ways in which we can stimulate a release of dopamine in our brains and to engage in activities and relationships that leave us feeling enriched, rewarded and alive.

Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy
Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
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