Over the last 100 years or so, we have become a society of pleasure-seekers and pain-avoiders. We do anything and everything to avoid what we perceive as painful and chase everything we deem …
My name is Patrick McGilvray, and I’m an experienced marathoner, ultra runner, Sports Nutritionist, Master Life Coach, and weight loss coach for runners. I’ve dedicated my life to helping runners just like you properly fuel your body and your mind. So you can get leaner, get stronger, run faster, and run longer than you ever thought possible. This is Running Lean.
Hey there and welcome to episode 183 of Running Lean. My name is Patrick McGilvray, The Weight Loss Coach for Runners and today, are you addicted to dopamine? Over the last 100 years or so, we’ve become a society of pleasure seekers and pain avoiders.
We do anything and everything to avoid what we perceive as painful. And then we chase everything we deem as pleasurable even if it’s something that is actually harmful to us. This is classic addictive behavior, especially when it comes to how we consume things like food and alcohol.
But what are we really addicted to? Is it the chocolate chip cookies? Is it the IPAs, or is it something else? In this episode, I’m going to explain how dopamine might be the real culprit here. I also want to help you decide if you might be addicted to dopamine.
Spoiler alert, I think we all are to some degree. I’m also going to offer up some tips for you to help you avoid getting sucked down into the dopamine whirlpool.
Cool, but first, listen, I have run countless half marathons, marathons, ultra marathons, triathlons, I’ve done a 100 mile trail race, a full Ironman, I have a ton of experience with long distance running and endurance sports.
But despite all of this, all this knowledge and all the experience, I still managed to gain weight every year. I thought I was doing all the right things from a nutrition standpoint. But clearly I wasn’t something was wrong, and I needed to fix it, but I didn’t know what to do.
And then I did something that changed everything. For me, I got a coach, I had someone there to explain exactly what was happening in my body. And this whole thing was a game changer for me, having an experienced coach show me what to do.
To fix all this was literally life changing. This changed the whole trajectory of my life. I had someone there guiding me every step of the way, showing me what to do and how to do it. I had someone there that I could go to anytime I had questions because they always had answers.
I had someone in my corner cheering for me, also doling out a little bit of tough love when I needed it. I had someone there to hold me accountable for my actions and helped me stay on track. And I had such an amazing transformation working with a coach, actually several coaches, that I decided that’s what I wanted to do.
Now, every day, I get to help people like you with your transformation. So when you’re ready to commit to becoming the healthiest and most badass version of yourself, I suggest you find a coach that will help you get there. It doesn’t even have to be me, just find someone who has what you want, and then get started.
This could be the best thing that you ever do for yourself and could change the trajectory of your life as well. If you’re ready to hit the easy button on your running and weight loss goals, just go to runningleancoaching.com/join to learn more about my unique weight loss coaching program for runners.
Okay, let’s talk about dopamine. So are you addicted to dopamine? First of all, what is dopamine? Dopamine is a neurotransmitter made in the brain. Basically, it acts like a chemical messenger between neurons. And dopamine is actually released when your brain is expecting a reward.
So there’s actually a pre-release of dopamine that happens before you actually get the reward that you’re anticipating. So imagine you smelling some cookies cooking in the oven, some warm chocolate chip cookies, right, and you can smell them and your brain will start to release dopamine because you’re expecting that reward. Okay.
When you associate a certain activity with pleasure, the anticipation of that activity may be enough to actually raise your dopamine levels to produce some form of dopamine. It could be food, sex, shopping, alcohol, just about anything that brings you pleasure. Okay.
So again, imagine that your favorite food is chocolate chip cookies, just thinking about them or smelling them cooking in the oven will trigger the release of dopamine in your brain. So it’s like that pre-release of dopamine, okay.
And then when you actually eat those cookies, your brain gets the reward and you are flooded with dopamine. Okay? So dopamine affects you in a lot of different ways that contributes to feelings of alertness and focus and motivation and happiness and a huge flood of dopamine.
Like maybe if you eat five or eight of those warm chocolate chip cookies, which I could do in a heartbeat (btw), you get this flood of dopamine that produces feelings of euphoria. And the more intense the dopamine hit is, the better you will feel the more intense that feeling of euphoria is okay.
So chocolate chip cookies, or exercising, or laughter, these all cause releases of dopamine, but they’re pretty, pretty low doses of dopamine. But things like heroin and cocaine and alcohol cause a huge release of dopamine, and really increase the feeling of pleasure and relief and euphoria that you get from those substances.
Okay, so we have to understand that there is this cycle of pleasure that we are all prone to, which is motivation, reward and reinforcement. So the motivation to take action and on something is thinking about cookies, smelling the cookies, cooking in the oven, dreaming about the cookies, this gets you motivated to eat the cookies, okay, so there’s a motivation factor, even when the cookies are not around, even just thinking about them can get you motivated to, you know, want to go out and get cookies.
Then there’s the reward and reinforcement. So when you actually eat the cookies, this floods your brain with dopamine, which gives you the reward that you were anticipating that your motivation was driving you towards.
It also reinforces this pattern of behavior that’s getting you this desired result, you feel really good, it feels euphoric to eat a bunch of warm chocolate chip cookies. And if you’re thinking right now that you have to go and get some warm chocolate chip cookies right now, that is the dopamine motivation cycle.
And the pleasure cycle in, in practice, like you’re actually doing it right now. Because I’m kind of getting there myself. I’m like, oh, man, a warm chocolate chip cookie sounds pretty amazing right now. So just understand that there’s that cycle of motivation, reward and reinforcement.
And we have to understand that this is happening. Step number one, we have to have awareness of what’s going on with our brain and what’s going on with dopamine in our brain, especially. And we have to start getting good at breaking the cycle.
So let’s say you know, you have been dreaming about those chocolate chip cookies, and you know, you have some at home, your brain has that pre-release of dopamine, as you’re driving home, you’re like, oh, I can’t wait to get home, I’m gonna just dig into those chocolate chip cookies, but then you get home, and you discover that your kids ate all the cookies.
Now you have this disappointment factor, you have this big letdown, you didn’t get the reward, you had the motivation, but you’re not rewarding yourself with the actual cookies, with the dopamine that you’re gonna get. And so you have this big, like, down, downplay of dopamine, and you feel terrible, this feels really terrible.
You guys know exactly what I’m talking about, right? Because we’ve all experienced this, in one way or another, we’re anticipating a reward, we don’t get it, the desire actually increases. So the desire actually goes way up when we don’t get the reward. And that causes us to be in a bad mood, we don’t get the reward we wanted.
There’s no reinforcement, you feel really terrible, you’re kind of really grumpy. And you’re feeling just really miserable. So that is the cycle that’s at play here. And we have to understand that we don’t have to complete the cycle all the time that we can break that cycle. And it’s a little bit tricky, and I’ll explain how to do that in a minute here.
But just understand that that cycle has to be broken at some point. And we might have to actually experience a little bit of misery in order to get to the other side of this. Okay, I’ll go over that in a minute though.
So understand that everyone is somewhat addicted to something. We all have the capacity and most of us are addicted to dopamine in one form of another or another. So it could be food, alcohol, drugs, caffeine, sugar, your phone, social media, video games, shopping, gambling, porn. There’s so many things that we are addicted to.
In society today, so many things that we use as escapism or ways of numbing out to the world around us or how we’re feeling. The two most common are probably food and alcohol. And those are the ones I tend to kind of talk about with most of my clients.
But we eat and drink to feel different, we eat and drink to feel better, we want to reduce stress, or we’re bored, or we’re anxious or we’re frustrated, or we’re pissed off, or whatever it is, we don’t want to feel any of those things these are all will be considered negative emotions, right? And we don’t want to experience any of that stuff.
So if we eat some junk food, or drink some alcohol that just numbs us to those feelings, we don’t have to feel those things. Okay, we’ve become addicted to pleasure, we’ve become addicted to dopamine, we want that hit of dopamine to feel better. And this makes it so hard to resist all those things I just mentioned, especially sugar, junk food, alcohol.
We’re going to do anything we can not to have to feel discomfort, we’ve become addicted to the pleasurable feelings that we get of dopamine, when we get that release of dopamine, we love that and we’re addicted to it, we all are to some degree. We’ve just become addicted.
You cannot tolerate discomfort at all, we cannot tolerate any moments of discomfort. So we seek out pleasure, we numb ourselves to what we’re feeling. We distract ourselves from feeling our normal everyday feelings. Sometimes those feelings are negative, and it’s okay.
But instead, we escape from that and we want to escape from reality. So we don’t have to deal with, you know how reality makes us feel. You’ve got to understand, though, that we are human beings, and we experienced this wide swath of emotions.
And in that wide swath of emotions, our positive emotions like joy and happiness and kindness and ecstasy and love. And then we have what we call negative emotions, like anger and frustration and things anxiousness, and grief, and shame and fear, like, but there’s no like picking and choosing here, this is like just this as being a human being, we have to experience all of these emotions.
And it’s kind of like a 50/50 thing, like half the time, we’re gonna feel positive emotions half the time, we’re gonna feel negative emotions. And if we try to numb ourselves to the 50% that we don’t like, or the ones that we deem as negative, then we’re just numbing ourselves to 50% of our human experience.
And we have to stop doing that. Or we have to stop trying to escape from reality, you know. So this becomes more of an emotional tolerance problem, we have to learn how to tolerate our emotions better. Being addicted to dopamine is mainly a problem of not having any emotional tolerance.
You know, you can’t deal with having a negative emotion. So you’ll do anything and everything to make it go away right now. And over time, we’ve become so intolerable of having any of these emotions, that we will often do things to self sabotage our own success, rather than have to feel a negative emotion, we will self sabotage, rather than feel something we deem as negative.
So you have to learn how to experience your emotions, the good, the bad, the ugly, all of them, instead of turning to the quickest and most powerful source of dopamine that’s available to you. Because when you do this, when you are able to resist the temptation for the dopamine hit to escape or numb, then you actually can train your brain to become stronger.
And you become more easily able to deal with your emotions, you become an emotional badass, if you can just experience an emotion without having to numb yourself to it without having to go for that dopamine hit, you become an emotional badass.
You have to embrace the discomfort of having a negative emotion, stop trying to suppress them, or squash them down or numb them or escape from them. Let’s go back to this idea of self sabotage because we’ve been talking about this in our group this past month. And we spend a lot of time talking about how self sabotage is mainly a problem of emotional tolerance.
It’s not something that is solved by you know, oh, we have to you know, just fall follow these five steps and you will never self sabotage again. It’s mostly a problem of like, being able to tolerate any emotion, every emotion all the time. So self sabotage is anything that you do. It’s an action or an inaction that moves you further away from who you want to be, right.
Self sabotage is actions that are not in alignment with your long term goals. And we would rather sabotage our own success than have to feel an emotion. That’s kind of crazy, right? But we do it all the time. Oh, yeah, I want to lose 40 pounds, but I had this really stressful day at work.
So instead of having a salad, I’m going to eat cake for dinner tonight, even though that goes against everything you want for yourself, and you know, you’re going to gain a pound or two or something, you know, just by eating a big ol’ cake for dinner. You’d rather feel good right now, you’d rather not feel stressed today in this moment for about 15 minutes, than actually commit to that goal and actually lose the 40 pounds, even though that’s better for you.
Even though you know that’s better for you. And you know, in that moment, you’re making a decision that is not good for you. But you choose it anyway, because that dopamine has its claws in you, you know.
So, here’s a definition of addiction, I started looking this up. And there are literally like dozens of different definitions of addiction, I’m going to just give you one that I thought was kind of appropriate here. So, “Addiction is a repeated involvement with a substance or an activity, despite the substantial harm it causes, because that involvement with the activity is pleasurable.”
So addiction is doing something over and over again, either taking a substance or doing some sort of activity that brings you pleasure, even though there is substantial harm caused by it. Okay? So think about this, where in your life are you involved with something, a substance or an activity that you know is causing some sort of harm, but it is pleasurable, I guarantee you’re going to find one or more areas of your life that fit this description.
And one of those that’s kind of sneaky that I sort of mentioned earlier, is the cell phone, scrolling through social media, and I catch myself doing this. I actually put a timer on my phone to give me just 30 minutes of social media per day, and I just use Facebook and Instagram.
And I mainly do that from a business perspective, I go and comment on things and postings, and then I try to get off of there, but I find myself being sucked into these, you know, TikTok videos, or, you know, these reels are whatever they are, that, you know, seem innocuous enough until, you know, 15 minutes later, I’m still scrolling through these stupid videos. And I’m like, what, what am I even doing?
Like, I just find myself being pulled into this. And it’s because the activity gives us that little hit of dopamine. So think about this, that motivation, reward reinforcement cycle works the same way with scrolling through social media, we’re anticipating that we’re going to find something good.
And that’s going to make us happy, or make us laugh, or make us feel something like we were anticipating something good that’s going to happen is the same thing that happens with gamblers, when they pull that lever on the slot machine, and they anticipate that something good is going to happen.
In that moment, they get a release of dopamine, you get the same release of dopamine when you open up social media, and you’re waiting for it to load and you’re expecting something good to be there. Same thing happens at that moment, we get that release of dopamine, it’s that pre-dopamine release, and then we’ve got to satisfy that now.
So we scroll until we get something that is a reward. But that reinforces that behavior. And so we do it again and again. And again. The gambler can’t stop pulling the lever on the slot machine. We can’t stop doom scrolling. It’s the same thing.
And the same thing applies to eating junk food. You know, we anticipate it, we see pictures of junk food on Billboard’s and on websites and advertisements on Instagram, whatever. And it drives this desire for that thing. It increases the motivation to get that reward.
We have that pre-release of dopamine and then we just we gotta get it, we got to have it, can’t live without it. But if we can actually break the cycle there. If we can stop giving ourselves the reward and the reinforcement, we can actually make some pretty amazing changes in our lives. And I’m working on that with social media. It’s not I’m not perfect at it yet. I’m working on it, I have put a timer on my social media use every day.
And when that timer goes off, I try to put it down because you can like just say, like override timer, which kind of defeats the purpose. But anyway, I’ll find myself overriding a couple times throughout the day, just to check a few things. But I’m trying to get to the place where I just don’t do that anymore.
And I’m not devoting a bunch of time to doom scrolling, you know, because it really isn’t enhancing my life very much. Okay. So, another thing we have to be careful of here is that we become resistant to the effects of dopamine.
Over time, our brains will build up a resistance to dopamine. So we need more and more just to feel kind of normal again, just to get back to our baseline. This is not good, this, what’s this is what leads to drug addiction, alcoholism, binge eating, all kinds of really, you know, addictive behaviors.
But I think we all have a little bit of this addiction built into whether it’s scrolling social media, eating junk, food, drinking, whatever. So when we constantly reward ourselves with dopamine, this leads to an adaptation. So you become adapted to whatever you do consistently.
And if you consistently eat sugar, 12 times a day, you’re going to become super adapted to that and your brain will actually down regulate the amount of dopamine that you are producing.
And so you will need more and more to get that feeling. Again, this is classic addiction, right? Your brain gets used to the flood of dopamine, and it builds up resistance to it. And you keep going back to whatever your favorite source of dopamine as you go back over and over again, because you’re just trying to get that feeling again, and you can’t get it because you’re becoming resistant to it.
Resistance happens when you produce more dopamine than is normal over a long period of time. And then you require more and more to get the same effect. So the pain of not having the dopamine that your brain actually really desires leads to a very miserable existence, right, you find that you, you can’t even live without it, right?
You become like so addicted to the dopamine that you have to find something to make you feel better, right? So why many people find it so hard, or almost impossible to give up something like sugar for any length of time, because they’re so they’re addicted to it, they’re addicted to the dopamine, they become resistant to its effects, they need more and more just to get back to feeling quote unquote, like normal again.
And over time, if you continue to feed that dopamine monster, then it’s going to no longer produce the desired effect. And you’re going to end up just being miserable and struggling and needing more and more and more just to like, feel normal. Okay, and I know this all sounds pretty gloomy, but I want you to know that there is hope here, okay.
And it requires the willingness to experience pain. So the ironic thing here is that when you work hard to avoid pain, you eat the sugar and you drink the alcohol or you take the drugs because you just want to not have to feel pain in the moment, it actually causes long term pain and suffering.
There’s all kinds of negative consequences from drinking and eating sugar, and other addictive behaviors. Lots of long term pain is actually produced in what you’re trying to do is seek pleasure, but you’re actually creating pain, you’re trying to avoid pain, and you’re actually causing yourself a ton of pain.
The other ironic point here is that when you seek pain, you actually experience more pleasure in your life. Right? It’s like when you go to the gym, you go to the gym, it’s kind of a painful experience, right from getting up early in the morning, to sticking to the plan every day, to actually lifting the heavy weights. Like all this stuff is painful to some degree mentally, emotionally, physically, right?
You lift the heavy weights and it hurts, right? But the rewards that you get, the pleasure that you get on the other side of that is pretty amazing. You get stronger, you get healthier, you feel better, you improve your running, you sleep better, you’re happier, you actually up regulate your dope mean levels naturally.
So exercise is one of the best ways of up-regulating dopamine and has very positive effects. But it’s kind of a painful experience, right? You know, when people are, I don’t want to, I don’t want to run, running is hard. You know, I gotta commit to it, I gotta get up early in the morning, it’s cold outside, or it’s hot outside or whatever. But when you commit to doing that, quote, unquote, like painful thing, you actually produce pleasure.
Okay, so it’s kind of ironic there, right? So stop chasing the dopamine, and start chasing those things that seem a little painful in the moment. But that actually gives you the long term pleasure, because chasing the dopamine is a vicious cycle to be in, and you’re never going to get the desired results, you’re never going to actually create long term pleasure for yourself.
Now, there are other ways of achieving an upgrade regulating your dopamine levels naturally, like eating right, things like intermittent fasting actually helped to upregulate dopamine, cold showers or cold baths, running, especially sprinting or hill repeats something where you’re running very intensely, very hard.
Meditation, listening to music, laughter; all of these things help to upregulate dopamine naturally, and are actually good for you. Okay, so the way we get out of this cycle is to stop it. At some point, we have to break the cycle at some point. And it really requires that, that being able to tolerate your emotions, because what we’re trying to avoid the pain of experiencing a negative emotion is what we’re mostly trying to avoid.
If we can get good at just experiencing those negative emotions, we can actually stop chasing momentary pleasure and self sabotaging ourselves. And we can actually focus on what is good for us and those things that are going to produce long term health and happiness and, and positive feelings going forward. Cool. All right.
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