Your Love Is My Drug

I went to a seminar this past week and heard one piece of information that blew my mind.  Dopamine is a neurochemical that’s released when we believe we’ve received some sort of reward while oxytocin is released through experiences shared with another person.

In summary, what that said to me was: dopamine is all about me, while oxytocin is all about us.  Whoa.

This seminar was about addiction and working with the millennial population, so let’s start by looking at this through the lens of addiction.  When a person is in active addiction, one of the main neurological drivers is the release of dopamine (or the desire for the release of dopamine since we know as tolerance increases, we’re less able to experience the same high with the same amount of our drug of choice.)  This desire for dopamine is one of the reasons it’s so hard to maintain sobriety in early recovery.  Because when a person is triggered — dopamine is released.  So when a person in early recovery sees a bar or other people drinking, this neurochemical of excitement is released.  Yet another great example of addiction as a disease rather than just a lack of will power.

Dopamine is also one of the main chemicals released when we have a first kiss.  In contrast, oxytocin is a neurochemical released when trust is built.  I suspect this is the reason we say that love changes over time – because it does from a neurochemical standpoint!!!  What starts the gears turning when meeting a new love prospect are dopamine and endorphins.  But healthy, sustained relationships generate oxytocin.

I once had a relationship that was harmful to me in a lot of ways.  And I swore to my therapist that I was really in love with this guy.  She said, “You’re not in love with him.  You’re in love with the way he makes you feel.”  Ouch…but she was totally right.  What I was most likely experiencing was the high from dopamine and endorphins, but because we had not developed any trust between us, I wasn’t getting the oxytocin I needed to help me feel safe in the relationship.  In that instance, that relationship was my drug.

I’ve gotten the chance to work with a lot of clients who struggle to let go of a harmful relationship for one reason or another.  This information about neurochemicals puts all of their difficulty into context.  We know that process addictions affect the brain the same way as chemical addictions, so it makes sense when we look at addiction to a relationship in the same way as early recovery from a chemical.  If I look at someone who set my dopamine afire before, regardless of whether or not they hurt me, dopamine will be released again.  (One of the criteria for a substance use disorder is “continued use despite negative consequences.”).  One of the main complaints I hear from such clients is that all their friends struggle to understand why they keep going back.  Knowing how the brain works in these situations helps us understand why people stay in harmful relationships and/or get back together after breaking up.

So what do we do with this information?  I imagine it would be a good idea to find other ways to trigger dopamine.  It’s not just harmful behaviors that cause the release of dopamine.  Even finding that rockstar parking spot releases dopamine!

Loretta Graziano Breuning has written a book called Meet Your Happy Chemicals that informs you about dopamine, endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin and how/why they work.  She says that if you intentionally set out to produce these happy chemicals in healthy ways for 45 days, you’ll actually feel happier.

You can read a brief overview here:

I’ve always said to my clients that happiness isn’t something we can necessarily achieve on a day-to-day basis, but it’s really the exciting things like birthdays or Christmas that cause happiness.  And that a more realistic state to strive for is contentment.  This new insight about neurochemicals makes me think we just need more words for happiness, just like the Greek language has multiple words for love.  If I come up with any good words, I’ll let you know.

P.S. As I was watching Ke$ha’s video it reminded me of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that “Your Love is My Drug” and “All You Need is Love” have the same trippy animation.  You decide…