Neurotransmitters are chemical in our brain some of which are involved in feeling good, because our bodies secrete it when they have an experience that we interpret as pleasant. Some of the most popular neurotransmitters have a very profound effect on how we live. When we give ourselves a “little treat” or see a friend, or even have a nice cup of tea after a busy day at work, certain neurotransmitters makes us feel that much better about our life and leaves us wanting more. In fact, craving the good feelings we get from neurotransmitters is a natural function in humans. We don’t starve because we enjoy the sensation of eating. We reproduce because we like having sex and the afterglow of affection we often experience. We take care of our babies because we get a burst of chemicals released in our brains when they reward us with a gummy smile.
Over time, we come to associate certain experiences with the feeling of well-being we experience when neurotransmitters are released into our system. That’s all fine when the experiences in question are good for us—like going for a nice walk in the park, or working out at the gym, or seeing a much-loved friend—but it’s a problem when we develop an association between these natural feel good chemicals and unhealthy experiences.
For example, unhealthy behaviours that can give us the “chemical reward” feeling we love can include smoking, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, taking other addictive substances, or engaging in other addictive and damaging behaviours such as over-eating (or under-eating), or from obsessively playing video games to the exclusion of human contact in real life. We even get a natural chemical reward when we log onto Facebook or Twitter and see that our post has been “liked” or “retweeted” by someone whose opinion we care about. Again, per se that’s fine—but addictive behaviors around social media can prevent us from seeking out contact with others in real life, and any addiction can potentially cause great damage in a range of areas.
If we find that we have come to associate unhealthy behaviours with the chemical reward, we have a problem—but it is not insuperable. Over time, we can learn how to decouple the feeling of well-being from the unhealthy behaviour. This can take the form of learning how to give ourselves a “treat” that doesn’t do us harm. For example, if we look forward to a glass of wine in the evening to unwind after work but find that our drinking has escalated to unhealthy levels, we can “train” ourselves to unwind with a healthier treat instead—perhaps a particularly tasty herbal tea—or by engaging briefly in a mindfulness exercise that will help us to tap into our own innate capacities to self-soothe and relax.
Who can I speak to further about this topic?
For help with the issues discussed in this article speak to one of our therapists here at Private Therapy Clinic for a free initial chat or to make an appointment.