As I learn about dopamine’s role in addiction, I understand why I and others in recovery might engage in self-destructive behaviors. Recovery gives us a chance to channel self-destructive tendencies in healthy ways; many of us have worked hard on this. But the COVID-19 pandemic can exacerbate these proclivities, even if we are staying away from substances. It has for me and many of the people in recovery I know.
How is Dopamine Related to Addiction?
Dopamine is heavily implicated in addiction, because use of drugs or alcohol floods the system with this neurotransmitter. Over time, substances become imprinted in the memory as uniquely pleasurable, even if they stop actually feeling good.
In recovery, we learn to replace the dopamine flood of addiction with healthier activities—connecting to a support system, exercising, becoming involved in something greater than ourselves. But during the pandemic, we might not be getting as much stimulation and seek dopamine in destructive or impulsive ways.
People with addictions are more likely to have dopamine imbalances to begin with. According to David Linden, neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, “Genetic variants [in people with addiction] make for a low-functioning dopamine system, specifically D2 receptors. If you carry those variants, you are more likely to be more risk-taking, novelty-seeking and compulsive.”
Our brains may be wired to seek novelty, but there’s not as many chances for it when we’re socially distancing.
Even if you haven’t relapsed, it’s always important to use healthier coping skills. Doing so puts you at less risk for relapse and generally improves quality of life.
Healthy Ways to Get Dopamine
So, how do we get dopamine as we ride out the last leg of COVID-19? There might be a reason—beyond boredom—many people were trying out new hobbies at the beginning of the pandemic.
Dopamine is associated with reward and motivation, meaning it is released both when anticipating and achieving goals. Setting a larger goal and then breaking it into smaller ones gives you consistent dopamine—and going about it that way makes it easier to achieve the bigger goal.
Loretta Breuning, founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and author of Habits of a Happy Brain, says, “Embrace a new goal and take small steps toward it every day. Your brain will reward you with dopamine each time you take a step. The repetition will build a new dopamine pathway until it’s big enough to compete with the dopamine habit that you’re better off without.”
Another thing you can do is be of service; this improves the lives of others and boosts your recovery—a win-win for everyone. You might not know how to help when you’re stuck at home, but we’ve listed ways to be of service during the COVID-19 pandemic here. We’ve also suggested ways to be of service in the ongoing fight for racial justice here.
Addiction is a chronic brain disease; our brains are changed by it, even after we get sober. If you find yourself seeking novelty in destructive ways, remember that it is not your fault. Every moment is a chance to do things differently and re-engage in healthy coping.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorders, there is hope. Amatus Recovery Centers offers high-quality treatment for addiction and mental health disorders in facilities across the country. Our staff—many of whom are in recovery themselves—will help you build healthy coping skills. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.