Updated: Nov 24
Want to know how to use your brain's dopamine to keep you motivated for your eating disorder recovery? Keep reading...
Many people think of dopamine as a 'feel good' brain chemical that is key in rewarding us for behaviours or when we reach a goal.
Some also think of dopamine as being a crucial factor in the way that the brain works when it comes to addictions.
These understandings about dopamine are not wrong.
Dopamine is involved in reward processes and as a result is known to have a role in addiction.
However, neuroscience research now tells us that dopamine could well have a more important role in the way that the brain works when it comes to motivation.
But why am I telling you about this?
Well, if you do know a little about how dopamine works to motivate you (and reward you), you can find ways to use what is known about how our brains function to motivate yourself when the urge to do something that you know you need to do to achieve a recovery goal is lacking (which let's face it can be a big issue in eating disorder recovery!).
Dopamine & Reward
First let's have a quick look at the role of dopamine in reward.
When we do achieve something, dopamine is released within our brain and as a result, we get a super-good feeling from it which then drives our brain to seek ways to repeat the behaviour so as to get another hit of the feel good factor!
This is why dopamine has been termed the, 'molecule of more' as it drives us to continuously want more of whatever it is that is causing the dopamine release.
The great minds behind social media platforms use this fact to design features that ensure that we constantly return to their apps to see if we have had any more 'likes' or new 'followers'. They know that each time we get a new like or follower or see a new post that interests us that our brain gives us a little release of dopamine and that makes us stay on the app a little longer, scroll through more, put up another post and waste a bit more time!
In this way, dopamine is incredibly powerful at rewarding our behaviours and motivating us to repeat them.
Dopamine can also drive us to avoid behaviours that our brain perceives as uncomfortable or unrewarding and in these situations, we will get the dopamine hit when we avoid the behaviour, not when we carry it out. You might consider the child who has been asked to tidy their room and then realises that their worn down parent has given up on nagging them and so they get a little feel good boost (of dopamine) from their seeming escape of having to do something they don't want to do. You might also recognise this dopamine hit with the eating disorder, usually when you have managed to avoid a situation (involving food) that your brain perceived as a threat.
Of course, this function of dopamine is actually very unhelpful in recovery, when the behaviour it is rewarding you to avoid, is something like eating more food or sitting the f**k down, which you actually need to do in the pursuit of your eating disorder recovery goal!!
Therefore, dopamine can work for us in terms of rewarding behaviours driving us towards a goal but the opposite can also be true, if the brain (at a deeper, subconscious level) decides to reward us to avoid the actions that we actually need (in this case for recovery).
When you understand how dopamine works in this way though, you can find ways to target dopamine release in your favour (more on this later).
Dopamine And Motivation (a bit of science)...
As I said at the start of this article, dopamine is not just active in making us feel rewarded when we achieve something (or avoid it!).
Neuroscientists now know that dopamine is present in the brain, even when there is not a rewarding reason for it. At times of very high stress (which are in no way pleasurable), the brain has been found to have raised dopamine levels and through a number of studies, it is now understood that the brain releases dopamine, not just at the end of an action to reward an outcome but in order to motivate us to take that action in the first place, so that we reach a place of safety or pleasure.
Studies have found that people considered 'go getters' had high levels of dopamine in areas of the brain known for their role in motivation and reward. At the same time people who were more inclined to be life's 'slackers' had higher dopamine levels in another brain region, known for emotions and risk perception. Therefore, the researchers concluded that the role of dopamine was more relevant to motivation and risk:benefit analysis than it actually is to reward.
So How Can You Use This Knowledge To Increase Your Recovery Motivation?
When you understand a little about how dopamine might work in the brain, small hacks can be tried to get dopamine to work in your favour so that you feel more motivated to do all those things in recovery that you know you should do but just have not been able to find the drive or even courage to start.
For this, you need to find ways to ensure that dopamine is constantly being released when you carry out actions that take you towards your recovery goal to keep you motivated and that it stops recognising and rewarding actions that might otherwise keep you stuck (or even moving away from the goal).
The best way to do this is to focus on the big picture of the goal initially, pulling on all the great things the goal will give you when you achieve it and the sense of reward you will get at the end.
In practice, with eating disorder recovery, you could set up a mental image of just what you want your life to look like when you are recovered and eating disorder free! Imagine what you will be doing, who will be there, where you will be, the positive emotions you will experience and really get as detailed as possible in your imagination to see, feel and almost touch all the incredible rewards recovery will bring to you.
Then use a stepwise approach towards any goal and reward each step when successfully achieved. Each time you recognise and reward yourself for a small step, you will get another hit of dopamine in your brain and your brain will then learn from this and will start to release more dopamine to keep motivating you to repeat the same behaviour and get even more dopamine hits (rewards!). In eating disorder recovery, this could be as simple as, having eaten that whole pizza, giving a whoop of delight and (forcing if necessary) some positive emotions and giving yourself a pat on the back, telling yourself you are on the right track.
When you do not reward the journey towards a tough goal like eating disorder recovery and wait to just reward the final end-point, there will be no dopamine to keep propelling you forwards and instead, the motivation to keep pushing on will be a lot harder to find.
I am sure you have heard the question, 'how do you eat an elephant?' and the answer, 'one bite at a time'...
This notion is based on dopamine (and a few other brain chemicals but I will stay focused on dopamine here!)...
Each time you take a bite of the elephant, you are making a step towards your goal and after each bite you should stop and reward yourself for it, causing another hit of dopamine that feels good and motivates you to take another bite (isn't this the best ED recovery analogy!!).
The more you keep going with this, the more the brain will learn that eating the elephant is a rewarding thing to do and will start to pump out a bit more dopamine to keep you motivated to take more chunks out of that elephant so that you will have to do less to force it.
A lot is spoken about grit today and that we should all have more grit to stay on task and achieve. I say, making progress in recovery and achieving your goals is not just about grit. It is about using methods that will work to help you get where you need to go, with less risk of becoming burnt out and defeated.
Therefore, for any goal, big or small, make sure you know your WHY behind it and it will be easier to reach (see previous post on knowing your WHY!). Then, with the goal you want to achieve and your action plan in place, break the plan into steps and reward each one as you achieve them along the way, which will give you more motivation to keep going.
And if you want to keep hacking into some more brain chemicals to make it even easier.. also use gratitude en route to your goal, which releases serotonin into the brain. Serotonin is restorative and will allow you to become more externally focused and then help you to keep going when the road to the end goal is long.
And if you are recovering from an eating disorder or disordered eating and seeking ways to find courage and motivation to reach your recovery goals.... remember that you don't have to do so alone.