Dopamine is the chemical in our brain that allows us to feel pleasure – whether is it released naturally or artificially, we feel good. Typically, this means that using substances such as nicotine, caffeine or sugar, or engaging in behaviours like shopping, food, social media or binge- watching crap on TV. We often turn to these habits to help us manage our emotions and internal systems, but of course when habits go to extremes, as with narcotic addiction or problem gambling, then they are very destructive.
‘Addicts’ across the spectrum are very often victims of abuse or neglect in childhood or have experienced trauma in the past. The heroin addict blocks out the pain temporarily when they use. The cup of morning coffee puts off the tiredness. Neither example gives any resolution, just temporary relief. In both cases, dopamine and other chemicals are being produced, just in massively varying quantities.
Both of these addicts are running away from their individual realities: one may be smothering trauma or blocking out intrusive memories, which will all still be there when the drugs wear off; for the other, caffeine delivers that short burst of energy but probably affect sleep, meaning another hit is needed tomorrow morning. These cycles will perpetuate until they are broken, but… how do you do that?
The teaching of Buddhism says that the way to deal with the mind is not to try to change it, but to attempt to be an impartial, compassionate observer of it. By reflecting, we can use mindful awareness to release harmful thoughts and allow ourselves to begin to heal. By practising conscious awareness, we can act as our own compassionate, impartial observer. And once we are able to do this, we can start to process any underlying issues.
One very simple and skilful approach is to use what Buddhists and other spiritual traditions refer to as ‘bare attention’. It involves becoming aware of not only what is going on outside of us but what is happening on the inside too. In a mindful condition, we can simply notice the ebb and flow of emotions and thought patterns without dwelling on them. Instead of chewing over all the arguments or confrontations in our minds, or reliving negative experiences, we can just acknowledge them without reacting to them.
Instead of constantly seeking short term help from outside, we can do so much to heal and manage our inside-selves. Through regular practice, we can learn how to make this bare attention our way of looking after ourselves – either by practicing consciously in a mindful way, via meditation, or most effectively with the help of hypnosis. Hypnosis is the safest way to connect a person to their impartial observer within, and so start to break those unwanted cycles.
‘Be at least as interested in your reactions as in the person or situation that triggers them’
– Eckhart Tolle
For anyone interested in reading more about addiction, I highly recommend this wonderful book.