Beating the Dopamine Trap

One of the tools we can use to escape from the alcohol trap is dopamine. 


Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that most people think make us feel happy, but is actually associated with reward and motivation.


There are three ways that we can not only outsmart dopamine as it tries to encourage us to drink, but we can harness it to our advantage.


  1. Become mindful & aware of “false promises”


Start noticing when dopamine receptors are trying to make you push you towards believing something will make you feel good, but that will actually make you feel guilty, unhappy and just craving more.


So when you find yourself craving a drink so badly you can’t think of anything else, remind yourself what’s actually happening in your brain, and that dopamine just wants you to feel cravings, not satisfaction (that sneaky lizard brain).


And if you do give in and have that drink, and feel sick and furious after the first rush has worn off and you want another, or the next morning when you wake early feeling terrible, TRY not to beat yourself up about it.  I know, it’s hard.  Instead, stop and compare the promise to the reality – not to punish yourself but to learn. Really let it sink it.


There’s growing evidence that when we pay close attention to “false reward”, we can retrain our brain to associate the reality of the negative actual feelings (guilt, anger, despair) with the supposed reward instead of the promised feelings (happiness, relaxation, fluffy bunnies).  Ha, caught you out, sneaky false promises!


  1. Find the real “happy” neurotransmitters


You know what makes you feel good – do more of them.  PLAN them into your day.  When you do things that make you feel fulfilled, happy and grounded like being outdoors, exercising, listening to music, hanging out with people you like, painting/creative stuff, helping other people, hugging (people or trees) you release serotonin and GABA into your brain.  And when that happens you feel happy and satisfied.


They’re not as exciting for the lizard as a dopamine hit, but unlike dopamine they deliver.  No nasty cravings and false promises here.  You can use the modern part of your brain to make the connection between these activities and feeling good, and make sure you do more of them.


Making yourself feel happy and satisfied more regularly means you will feel less pain - so dopamine won’t appear so much to push you towards false rewards.


You can also use food to your advantage; no foods actually contain serotonin but some contain the amino acid tryptophan, which is converted to serotonin in your brain.  Nuts and seeds, tofu (go organic), milk and cheese, chicken, turkey and eggs are all good sources of tryptophan.

In fact, craving a drink can actually be caused by low serotonin in the brain, so eating well is a double whammy to beat the lizard.


  1. Use dopamine to your advantage


You can get that dopamine hit from other things like sugar and social connection.  So tie a dopamine hit to a non-drinking reward that you know will give you pleasure.


  • Go for a walk with a good friend and enjoy catching up.
  • Have a kombucha (good sugar) whilst relaxing at 5pm with your significant other.
  • Do an online painting exercise for an hour with your face music in the background.


Our brains are super powerful, and we can use our modern brain to outsmart the lizard!


Be mindful of false promises and give yourself lots of lovely serotonin and GABA, build these activities into your life the way that you used to build your life around drinking.


What can you do to tie your dopamine hit to a non-drinking reward?


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