And as is the norm ever since the dawn of mankind, we are all trying to inculcate more nurturing healthy habits. It made me think about the not-nurturing habits we end up developing and the levels we go through to try and attempt to tackle them! What drives these habits, our pursuit for pleasure and maybe it's time to develop a healthy relationship with pleasure.
Quite recently, I noticed myself reaching out for my phone (‘twas those addictive Instagram reels) every time I found myself having a spare minute. Now, I used to pride myself on my ability to keep away from my phone - especially when most people around me seemed to be glued to it - but this newly developed habit was only creating strife in my life. There is so much I could do with my free time if I could just manage to put my phone away, even if it was something as simple as giving my eyes some much-needed rest from staring at my screen all day long. But it is our pursuit of pleasure that drives and emphasises our need to develop a healthy relationship with pleasure
We all have the not-so-nurturing habits that we struggle with to varying degrees. These habits are kind of like addictions, and their severity often dictates the extent to which they consume our time and diminish our engagement in other aspects of life. The more entrenched these habits become, the more detrimental they impact our overall well-being.
Addiction is a spectrum of behaviours that share a common underlying mechanism: the compulsive pursuit of pleasure. People with addictions often find themselves engaging in their addictive behaviours even when they know it is harmful to them. How many times have we heard the ill effects of smoking, drinking too much, doom scrolling or obsessing over an unhealthy diet? Don’t answer that question, it’s rhetoric.
There’s no other way to put it. Our brains are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
This evolutionary mechanism may have helped us thousands of years ago to avoid dangerous things that could potentially kill us but human beings do not live in the world of hunter-gathers anymore. Many of us live in a world of abundance and that is a huge problem because that means we are fighting against our number one enemy: our very own brains. Yes, our brains are constantly telling us to seek out more pleasure especially when it is so easily accessible. All of this just makes addiction so hard to leave.
In Dopamine Nation, Dr. Anna Lembke, psychiatrist and author, explains that when we engage in pleasurable activities, our brains release dopamine, which makes us feel good. However, when we experience too much pleasure, it leads our brains to a state of "hyper dopamine," which can make it difficult to feel pleasure from anything else. This is why people with addictions often find themselves engaging in their addictive behaviours even when they know it is harmful to them.
The pleasure-pain brain matrix in our brain is like a see-saw. Our brains work very hard to make sure that this see-saw is even and doesn’t tip over to any one side. It is constantly trying to maintain a state of equilibrium or homeostasis. This means that it is persistently trying to balance pain and pleasure. When we experience pleasure, dopamine is released and our brain tries to equalise the see-saw which is why pain quickly follows to keep us motivated. Lembke says that balancing this see-saw made sense for the early humans as we were scouring for our basic needs. It’s actually a pretty cool mechanism that ensures the enjoyable feeling doesn't stick around for long. Unfortunately, the pleasure doesn't last, and it's quickly replaced by pain, so we immediately find ourselves searching for it all over again.
So what should we do when we’re living in the modern world but our bodies were designed to hunt and gather in the savannah?
Lembke believes that the key to breaking the cycle of addiction is to - wait for it - develop a healthy relationship with pleasure. This means shifting away from the pursuit of excessive pleasure, which can lead to a chronic dopamine deficit and exacerbate addictive behaviours. Instead, it entails savouring the small pleasures that enrich our lives without triggering the compulsive pursuit that characterises addiction.
- Mindful Appreciation: Savour the simple joys often overlooked in daily life, such as the warmth of the sun or the beauty of nature.
- Avoiding Sensory Overload: In today's hyper-connected world, we are constantly bombarded with stimuli vying for our attention. This constant barrage can contribute to sensory overload. To combat this, Lembke suggests incorporating periods of digital detox into our lives. Disconnect from technology and engage in relaxing activities to regain the ability to appreciate life's simple pleasures.
Stress and anxiety can trigger addictive behaviours. To break this cycle we need to develop healthy coping mechanisms:
- Mindfulness Practices: Focus on the present and observe thoughts and emotions without judgement to regulate emotional responses.
- Social Connection: Nurture strong relationships for support and belonging, reducing the need for addictive behaviours.
- Seek Professional Help: A therapist can provide guidance and support in developing a personalised treatment plan.
Addressing addiction is a comprehensive approach that goes beyond simply abstaining from addictive substances or behaviours. It is important to understand how our brains work, what drives addictive patterns, and develop strategies to manage the brain's pleasure-pain matrix!