Some people refer to dopamine as the “feel-good brain chemical,” and some think it’s addictive. But can you become addicted to dopamine, a substance that’s already inside your body?
The short answer is “no,” you can’t be addicted to dopamine. But you can be addicted to behaviors that release it in large amounts.
To understand the complex nature of dopamine and its role in addiction, it’s essential first to understand what dopamine is, how it works, and what happens when the brain has too much.
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. Your body makes it naturally. And your nervous system uses it as a messenger to send information between nerve cells.
The reward system sends out dopamine in the brain. This system consists of dopamine receptors, which take in and process dopamine at a standard rate.
Dopamine plays a role in how people feel pleasure, but it’s not the sole reason for pleasure. It’s part of what makes humans able to do things like plan ahead, strive for a goal, focus on what’s important, or find something interesting.
Dopamine affects many necessary functions, including:
- Blood vessel function
- Pain processing
- Heart rate
- Kidney function
And like a lot of important processes, such as breathing or heartbeats, your body does it on autopilot. It’s something you don’t notice unless there’s a problem.
One issue that may occur is dopamine dysregulation. This dysregulation is when the brain floods with dopamine and cannot process it.
Typically, a person engages in behavior that their brain links with the pleasure they felt with a dopamine rush. But as time goes on, that person needs more of that behavior or an increasingly intense version of it to get the same effect.
This need results in that person seeking out higher-risk or higher-dopamine-producing behaviors. But because the brain can’t process all the dopamine it produces from these behaviors, dysregulation occurs. In this process, the brain disables dopamine receptors. So, there aren’t as many places for that dopamine to go. It means the person can’t feel the rush they’re used to from that behavior. They will find themselves dependent on those behaviors to feel normal.
This person will find themselves in need of dopamine to self-regulate. They will engage in the pathological pursuit of pleasure, rewards, and relief through the use of substances or behaviors.
Am I Addicted to Dopamine?
So, can you be addicted to dopamine, which your body naturally produces? In short, no.
Dopamine itself isn’t addictive. But it influences your behavior. Experiences that make you feel good activate the part of your brain that releases dopamine, which isn’t addictive.
But what people often perceive as dopamine addiction can be a sign of an actual addiction. Things that make you feel good are why your brain releases dopamine. Your brain remembers a pleasurable experience, and you may try to repeat it. But as is the case with dopamine dysregulation, you may find that the initial experience is no longer enough to get the same rush.
You may worry that seeking out positive sensations may lead to dysregulation, or engaging in pleasurable behaviors may lead to addiction later. And while it’s possible, remember that dopamine is a natural part of your brain’s processes. It’s vital for a lot of functions.
Dopamine and Sex Addiction
In the same way that addictive substances can cause a dopamine rush, so can sexual activity. Because the brain releases dopamine during sexual activity, masturbation, or viewing pornography, the brain may begin to associate those behaviors with pleasure. You then may seek to engage in those behaviors to experience the dopamine rush again.
But there is no one cause of addiction. Many factors can lead to sex addiction, not simply experiencing a dopamine release.
Dopamine release can be a coping method. For example, trauma can have a detrimental impact on the brain’s dopamine receptors. It can be a catalyst for substance or behavior addiction, like sex addiction. In some cases, adverse childhood experiences can prevent dopamine receptors from forming. If a person has fewer receptors, they may engage in behaviors that release more dopamine to feel normal.
Using dopamine as a coping method will result in dopamine tolerance. In the case of sex addiction, this means the same sexual behaviors will no longer produce the same dopamine effects. The change causes people to seek out riskier behaviors to achieve the same feeling.
Treat the Cause
Dopamine itself isn’t addictive, but dopamine dysregulation is a part of addiction. The desire to feel better and cope with trauma, memories of adverse childhood experiences, and negative emotions can often lead people to engage in behaviors or consume substances that help release more dopamine in the brain. They want to feel better.
Treating the root cause of what leads people to seek dopamine surges is the key to recovery. Begin Again Institute takes a trauma-informed approach to treat sex addiction. We offer multiple programs and therapies to help you in your healing journey.
Contact us for more information about how Begin Again Institute can help you.