Dopamine and Discipline: Science of Quitting Pornography

The following is a guest post from the Millennial Monk that describes the role of dopamine in addiction. See more at http://themillennialmonk.com


Think back to the days when you were a kid. The world was such an exciting place, full of endless opportunities. Riding your bike, playing basketball outside with your friends–the simplest things kept you entertained for hours on end.

Assuming you weren’t married to your video game console, our childhoods are some of the fondest memories we have. Full of boundless energy, creativity, and joy, we lived each day to the fullest and dreaded the idea of sleep; we were always ready to go on an adventure.

As the years passed, nearing adulthood, many, including myself started to feel dull, as if life was stripped of its luster.

Enter: Dopamine

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that is responsible for controlling the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. From an evolutionary standpoint, dopamine is released whenever we perform activities that further our chance of survival, rewarding us for these actions. Thus creating a positive feedback loop in order to increase our desire to perform such activities. Adderall and other amphetamine based drugs take advantage of this pathway by mimicking dopamine, rewarding its user for tedious labor that would not call for a natural surge of dopamine.

Prior to the modern age, dopaminergic reward would be limited to certain events, such as procreation, successfully hunting down a prey, finding a fruit orchard in the wild, etc.. In response to these types of events, dopamine would be released as a reward for the immense effort that courting a mate, or stalking and hunting down a prey takes. Dopamine is naturally released in response to delayed gratification activities coming to fruition.

Flooding the Engine

Today, you won’t have to look far to see dopamine triggers around every corner, accessible to us at the snap of our fingers. HD porn, fast food, video games, social media–these things trigger massive dopamine spikes over longs periods of time due to their perpetual novelty and accessibility. This overabundance of dopamine in the synapse leads to feelings of excitement in the short term, but leads to depression and a decrease in both motivation and energy in the long run. This is due to the fact that dopamine receptors become desensitized to the excessive concentration of dopamine across the synapse, in order to achieve homeostasis. When the stimulus is removed, dopamine receptors remain desensitized, therefore, the body needs more and more dopamine just to feel normal. This is the general mechanism of addiction. Addiction to cheap sources of pleasure have repercussions, which include (and are not limited to) obesity, ADD, anxiety, erectile dysfunction, lack of motivation, O.C.D., depression and lethargy.

To add to all of that, the instant access to dopamine spikes we have today is actually counterproductive to the biological function of dopamine. Recall that dopamine serves as a reward for our hard work paying off. When we are able to have pure neurochemical reward at our fingertips, we end up rewarding ourselves for doing nothing. This vicious cycle of feeling reward for nothing, followed by needing more reward to feel nothing proves disastrous in our ability to do work of any kind. The fact that we are steadily losing our ability to delay present satisfaction for future gain becomes problematic, as today, people would rather watch porn than pursue a potential mate or binge watch Netflix over reading a book.

Breaking Free

If you’re reading this and you suffer from any of the following:

Depression
Fatigue
Inability to focus
Erectile dysfunction
Social Anxiety
O.C.D.
Lack of motivation
Decreased willpower
A general feeling of dullness and passivity

There’s a good chance you have become desensitized to the effects of dopamine.

While it is possible to pelt your neurons with dopamine on a daily basis and still maintain a productive lifestyle through sheer willpower, it is extremely difficult to maintain over the long run. It only gets worse as you inevitably become more and more desensitized as time goes on, leaving you increasingly less willing to perform the necessary tasks that get you where you want to be in life. You wouldn’t give a dog a treat for for sitting around the house and then expect him to do tricks for you. Why would he want to put in work if he constantly gets rewarded for doing nothing? It’s time to stop rewarding yourself for doing nothing and break free from the chemical chains that bind you.

The key to breaking free is to progressively phase out what I like to call neurothrills. These are neurological superstimuli that release excessively high levels of dopamine beyond the level for which we evolved. These stimuli are also prone to abuse due to their extreme ease of access. I will divulge deeper into which neurothrills we should avoid and why.

Rebirth

After a brief withdrawal phase, the brain’s dopamine receptors become increasingly more sensitive to the effects of dopamine. Depending how desensitized your receptors are to dopamine, the withdrawal phase lasts about 24-72 hours. Once you graduate from this phase, you will typically see your mental clarity and focus improve first, followed by an increased willingness to perform activities that you would normally find mind numbingly boring. From my own experience, as well as that of others, around the one week point, you will notice a marked improvement in mood, confidence and a vast reduction in anxiety.

With each day of avoiding cheap neurothrills, the damage I had given myself from years of dopamine abuse was reversing. The beauty and luster of life revealed itself to me for the first time in years, and so it can for you too.

The 5 most toxic neurothrills we indulge in on a daily basis and what makes them particularly harmful.

#1) Porn

When it comes to the most commonly abused source of instant gratification, hardcore pornography takes the cake. Unlike certain foods or drugs, there simply isn’t a limit to how much one can consume per day. This, in conjunction with the fact that there are endless possibilities for new, novel stimuli in the form of extreme genres and fetishes, makes internet porn a slippery slope for most people. It’s not uncommon for many to progressively degenerate into more extreme forms of porn to elicit a higher dopamine response, just to get the feeling of pleasure that they felt the first time they ever watched it.

Porn also has certain physical repercussions, namely, its contribution to porn induced erectile dysfunction (PIED). Dopamine plays the role of signalling your hypothalamus to send a nerve impulse down the spinal cord towards the genitalia in order to achieve physical arousal. When one’s dopamine receptors fail to become sufficiently stimulated in response to normal sexual stimuli, he will have trouble maintaining an erection outside of the extreme forms of porn that he has progressively conditioned his brain to require.

To add to these physiological consequences of porn use, porn, or the act of spending time trying to find the perfect video eats up large portions of time that could be better spent on more beneficial activities.

Recommendation: Eliminate all forms of pornography from your everyday life. 

There is no benefit to viewing pornography, even in moderation; your biology is wired to crave more extreme forms as time progresses.

#2) Social Media

Social media is the king of distractions. Americans aged 18-64 who use social media say they spend about 3.2 hours per day doing so 1. This is an enormous chunk of the day that could, and should be used more productively. The problem with social media is that it trains you to need a small, intermittent dopamine hit multiple times an hour. Today, we are constantly checking our phones, waiting for someone to like our Instagram picture or retweet something we posted on Twitter, just to get that little surge of dopamine of someone validating our post. This obviously leads to some issues. Your ability to focus on tasks, uninterrupted, greatly diminishes due to this constant validation seeking behavior.

Not only is social media a harmful neurothrill that abuses our reward system, it also has a tendency to make you feel inferior. If you decide to keep using social media, it is imperative that you understand what its true purpose is: personal marketing. The people you follow will only post the most exciting moments that they experience, making their lives appear more thrilling than they really are. Many of us forget this and get caught up in comparing our own lives to the ones we see on social media. Realize that you are comparing yourself to a story that someone wants you to believe about them. Don’t compare your homemade sandwich to a Big Mac in a McDonald’s commercial–it may look more delicious, but in reality, it’s just a greasy sandwich.

Recommendation: Drastically cut down your use of social media.  

Social media will waste your time, cause you to seek validation from others, worsen your ability to delay gratification, and will make you feel inferior if you don’t view it as a tool for personal marketing. Eliminate it and watch your confidence and discipline skyrocket.

The only exception for keeping a social media account is to play the game of personal marketing. Build yourself an attractive profile, then leave it up as a tool of demonstrating value. (This will be a topic for a future post.)

Alternative: Always be social with strangers in public.

See someone wearing a t-shirt of a band that you like? Make some small talk with them. Focus on meeting people every day and building your real life social network.

#3) TV/Video Games

This dynamic duo was the bane of my teenage years–they are extremely effective at wasting your time. Netflix was always a problem for me; once I had started watching a TV show, it was extremely hard for me to stop. Plot twists, explosions, deus ex machina–all novel tactics to keep to you entertained and glued to your seat for hours.

Most video games keep you occupied in the same way. What makes video games more insidious than television is the leveling system that many games have. By giving your brain the illusion of working hard towards improving your character to a certain level, it has the tendency of making you come back every day to plug in several hours to further advance your character.

Recommendation: Always be staying busy (ABSB).

If you are willing to give away your TV–more power to you. For most of us, however, that’s a pretty drastic measure. The best way to avoid falling into the trap of loafing on your coach all day is to always be keeping busy with other tasks. Cultivate productive everyday habits that leave you too preoccupied to consciously turn on your TV to unwind.

Alternative: Read a book.

In the fitness world, they have what’s called “the apple test.” If you are hungry enough to eat an apple, you are indeed hungry and have passed the test. If you are not hungry enough to eat an apple, you have failed the test–meaning you are not physically hungry, you just have a craving for the taste and comfort of food.

Similarly, I came up with something called, “the book test.” If you are looking to unwind, and the idea of reading a few pages of an interesting book doesn’t appeal to you, then you know that your mind is seeking a dopamine hit.

#4) Sugar

Something that not many people realize is that eating sugar causes very large amounts of dopamine to be released. The fructose found in sugar bypasses our normal satiety mechanisms by promoting resistance to a hormone released by our fat cells called leptin. Leptin works to achieve homeostasis in the amount of fat that our bodies carry. The bigger our fat cells are, the more leptin they secrete, signalling the brain to eat less food. By making the brain temporarily resistant to leptin, fructose encourages fat storage.

Since there weren’t many sources of sugar in the pre-agricultural era, it makes sense that our brains evolved to reward us in the case of finding one, as it would increase our chances of survival by increasing our energy stores.

With the advent of refined sugar into our everyday lives, we have seen a growing incidence of obesity and type 2 diabetes. This all stems down to the fact that sugar acts like an addictive substance 2 by releasing large amounts of dopamine when ingested, ultimately leading to desensitization through over-consumption.

Recommendation: Eliminate refined sugar from your diet, eat fruit in moderation.

#5) Excessive Theorizing (Mental Masturbation)

(c) Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Many of us who have a passion for self improvement struggle with this habit. What we don’t realize is that reading post after post, book after book, is dopamine seeking behavior. Filling your head with theory–new tricks and insights–without taking the proper action to implement them is mental masturbation in its purest form. It is definitely a hard pill to swallow, but for most people, constantly reading self help material is just a sneaky way for your brain to get a dopamine hit, while the host is left with a false feeling of success and accomplishment.

Doing this wastes time and gets you nowhere fast.

Rather than going out and taking the proper actions to realize his dreams, the mental masturbator sits in isolation, reading about the experiences of others taking action, searching for the one tidbit that will bring him a quantum leap to success. It never comes.

Recommendation: Keep a theory to action ratio of 1:5.

Keep track of all the tangible actions you make on a daily basis that bring you closer to achieving your personal goals from now on. Award yourself one theory reading for every five actions you take. This will keep you from falling into the trap of masking your fear of taking action with over-saturation of theory reading.

A Quick Word on Meditation

In order to ‘grease the groove’ and make the process of avoiding instant gratification activities easier, I recommend a short 10-20 minute meditation session each day.

How to:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position.
  2. Observe the breath. Is it cold as you inhale? Warm as you exhale?
  3. Observe the uncontrollable act that breathing is. Observe the unconscious force which compels you to breath.
  4. Thoughts will arise, simply realize that you are thinking and return to observing the breath.
  5. Do not feel anger or frustration if thoughts continue to arise incessantly. Each time you recognize that you are thinking, the frequency of thoughts decreases.

What this does is train you to be aware of when your mind tries to rationalize its desire to indulge in dopamine spiking activities.

It also makes you more aware of when your brain finds other media through which to satiate its craving for dopamine that you might not have been aware of initially.

Start with 10 minutes daily, progressively adding 30 seconds to each session each day until you reach 20 minutes.

Additional Neurothrills (For the Hardcore)

These are by no means necessary, if you refrain from the toxic five, you will be psychologically and emotionally healthier than the majority of people living in the westernized world. 

Here are some additional neurothrills you can experiment with:

Music: As a musician, I dread the idea of listening to less music, but I can’t deny the fact that the longer I abstain from listening to the music on my phone, the more amazing it sounds when I do listen to it. No need to eliminate it, but consider listening to a podcast on your way to work once in a while instead.

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Warm showers: While it seems that warm showers mostly release oxytocin, myself and many others have had tremendous success with implementing cold showers.

Day dreaming/fantasizing: Meditation is a great help if you have problems with this.

Alcohol/cigarettes/marijuana: These are simply unnecessary dopaminergic vices.

Conclusion

It takes a strong mind and a boatload of self awareness to realize the vicious cycle of dopamine abuse that exists in our modern world.

The average man seeks to live in comfort, blindingly pumping his brain with dopamine daily, from the time he wakes up to the time he goes back to bed.

He is lonely because he is too sexually depraved from pornography abuse to pursue a healthy relationship with a woman.

He places his confidence in the hands of others by relying on their validation through social media.

The average man eats sugary snacks and sits happily at >20% body fat, slowly bringing his cells to exhaustion from the constant bombardment of insulin that they receive.

He will sit in front of the TV for hours, binge watching netflix or playing video games to ‘unwind’ from his ‘hard’ day at work.

He is always looking for shortcuts, unable to muster up a shred of discipline to put in the work to escape the hell that he calls life.

He’ll never change. He’s comfortable.

But you can.

  • Jared

    Love love LOVE this article! Spoke volumes about my truth, and reinforced the beliefs I already perceived to be true to my dopamone cravings. Welcome back Chris! Really look forward to hearing more!

  • Thanks Jared! Dopamine plays a role in so many of our behaviors,
    especially in modern times. Getting it from real sources – approaching
    women, building a business, etc. – is difficult but far more rewarding
    and sustainable than taking easy hits from things like pornography or
    junk food. Just remember that a man suffers and builds while a slave is
    owned by his every whim. Good looking out and let’s continue this
    journey together

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