Updated: Oct 30, 2020
Addictive Reward Seeking Behavior or Brain Enhancing Behavior
Humans, as well as animals, engage in behaviors that are rewarding. We all learn to repeat behavior that generates pleasurable feelings provided by positive reinforcement. The brain processes all pleasure in the same way; meaning, it can’t distinguish between pleasure originating from food, drugs, money, sex or even social media.
In the brain, pleasure has a distinct signature; the release of a neurotransmitter called Dopamine. Dopamine is seen as the main chemical of pleasure and happens through a pathway in an area of the brain in the pre-frontal cortex responsible for reinforcing rewarding behaviors referred to as the brain’s pleasure center. Dopamine not only contributes to the experience of pleasure, but also plays a role in learning and memory — two key elements in the transition from liking something to becoming addicted to it.
According to the latest research about addiction, dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter, glutamate, to take over the brain's system of reward-related learning. This system has an important role in sustaining life because it links activities needed for human survival (such as eating and sex) with pleasure and reward. The reward circuit in the brain includes areas involved with motivation and memory as well as with pleasure. Addictive substances and behaviors stimulate the same circuit — and then overload it.
Repeated exposure to an addictive substance or behavior causes nerve cells in the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain involved in planning and executing tasks) to communicate in a way that couples liking something with wanting it, in turn driving us to go after it. This is the process motivating us to take action to seek out the source of pleasure.
In a person who becomes addicted, brain receptors become overwhelmed. The brain responds by producing less dopamine or eliminating dopamine receptors. As a result, dopamine has less impact on the brain's reward center. People who develop an addiction typically find that, in time, the desired substance no longer gives them as much pleasure. They have to take more of it to obtain the same dopamine "high" because their brains have adapted a tolerance.
At this point, compulsion takes over. The pleasure associated with an addictive drug or behavior subsides — and yet the memory of the desired effect and the need to recreate it (the wanting) persists. This is where the learning process mentioned earlier also comes into play. The hippocampus and the amygdala store information about environmental cues associated with the desired substance, so that it can be located again. These memories help create a conditioned response — intense craving — whenever the person encounters those environmental cues. This happens even when we realize the behavior is creating ill-health or significant problems in our lives i.e. the gambler who’s in debt or loses their home and family yet cannot stop gambling.
Getting Our Dopamine Hit From Breathing
Breathing plays a role in the production of the Dopamine but with a much healthier response to the body/mind. Here’s the difference, when we’re conditioning the dopamine release from the reward centers of our brain, not only do we create an addictive environment for ourselves, we train our brain to live in the stress response constantly seeking pleasure outside of ourselves.
Incorporating a breathing practice for the Dopamine release has the complete opposite effect. When we diaphragmatically breathe, the contraction of the diaphragm sends a message to the brain to release dopamine which creates a calming effect. As an important immune regulator, peripheral dopamine is mainly produced by autonomic nervous system. So, we’re producing Dopamine from a relaxed environment in the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
Now here’s the other benefit. Conscious breathing communicates with the emotional centers in the brain to reduce anxiety, depression and stress and provides the platform to transform addictive behaviors. A breathing practice is the perfect non-pharmacological intervention for emotion enhancement; not diminishing it.
By just incorporating a regular Diaphragmatic Breathing practice, we're strengthening the qualities of the Parasympathetic Nervous System and heart-brain coherence. Heart-brain coherence is closely tied to cardiac vagal tone and the strength of our vagus nerve which is stimulated by Diaphragmatic Breathing.
Strong vagal tone is closely associated with the physiological basis of emotion, including emotional regulation, psychological adaptation (resiliency), emotional reactivity and expression, empathic responses, and attachment.
So, put down the cell phone, step away from the computer and spend the next 5 to 10 minutes Diaphragmatically Breathing. Incorporate this throughout your day to reduce the negative effects of the pinging from your cell phone or computer that have trained you to constantly receive your dopamine from the amount of likes, comments and responses you get from posts and emails.