The Cause…

The formula that brought me to my little home study was this:

Feeling Overwhelmed + Dopamine +< 3 Bags of Cheetos in the Cupboard = TROUBLE!

Three weeks ago, I was sitting on the couch thinking about all of the things I need to do to get my new website launched.  Overwhelm crept its way through my body.  Food.  I need food.  Munchies to be specific.  Something salty.  Oh yeah, Randy bought all those Cheetos for Stephanie (a ruse for his own desire for the Cheetos).  Let’s see if I can eat just a couple.

Seconds later, I’m back on the couch and I have eaten a couple of Cheetos.  As I checked in, I sensed I did indeed want more.  Just a couple more.  Damn, I still want more.  I don’t know about you, but I get tired of being in resistance when it comes to certain foods.  “Self”, I said, “we really need to try a new tactic.”  

Aversion therapy – that’s it!  I did this to myself with tequila on my bachelorette party, so maybe this will work again!  There is hope!

I know it’s the damn dopamine.  I had been doing some light reading on willpower.  What I was experiencing was the power of “I Want”.  The brain is on the prowl for reward, and it moves away from pain and toward pleasure.  The feeling of overwhelm is uncomfortable, so the brain wants out of it.  It releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that tells the brain to be on the lookout for anything that might bring reward.  For me, the answer is often salty munchies.

Dopamine does not create happiness itself, the feeling is more like being stimulated for action.  We anticipate the good feeling a reward may bring, and we want it!  Some of the names given to the effects of a dopamine release include craving, wanting, desiring, seeking.  Dopamine causes the anticipation of the reward, not the experiencing of the reward.

I had just read about various studies with rats and human beings that demonstrated the role of dopamine.  When dopamine seizes our attention, like me thinking about the Cheetos and trying “just a few”, the mind obsesses on acquiring or repeating whatever triggered it.  The promise of pleasure, not the direct experience of pleasure, was causing me to want more Cheetos.   

Lucky for me, I absorbed a little of what I read.  Now this really made me mad.  The food industry has this figured out.  Cheetos designed their product to keep me coming back for more!  Well screw that!  I loathe being told what to do or feeling like I am being manipulated.  My dopamine and Cheetos were in cahoots!  

The Experiment…

With this epiphany, I decided a lesson needed to be taught.  As luck would have it again, I was home alone.  This home study would be best performed solo.  Cheetos would be eaten until the “I want” part of my brain was convinced that eating Cheetos was a bad idea.  

With the next few bites, I paused before crunching into the Cheeto.  I was looking it over, anticipating the wonderful, cheesy, salty flavor.  Here was the surprise.  When I actually took the time to taste in detail the said Cheeto, I was astounded to find it having more of a cardboard-like texture, and the flavor actually was not that of a decadent cheddar.  Fascinating!  As soon as I swallowed one, my brain was telling me I wanted another, even after these new observations.  This was the damn dopamine!  

Adding a new tactic, I spoke to my dopamine before each of the subsequent Cheetos.  Something like, “You think this is going to taste good?  Well, taste this!”  And, “Feel what this is doing to our body!  You really think you want more?”  I was actually starting to slow down.  They were starting to taste worse and worse as my stomach was beginning to add its objections to this little home study.  It was starting to yell out, “I wasn’t the one asking for this crap!  Screw you dopamine!  And screw you Cheetos!”  I was on my stomach’s side here.  “Yeah, screw you Cheetos!”  I could only take a couple more after that.  Most parts of me were on board with “No more!”, so I put the remainder of the bag away.

I have been reflecting on this home study, which I now fondly refer to as the “Screw-You Cheetos Experiment”.   In the past three weeks, I have not wanted to look at a Cheeto.  I have even opened up the snack cupboard to peek at the bag to see if ole dopamine wakes up.  I am happy to report that even if I am in a stressed, hungry, and tired state, the Cheetos are not in my radar.  Hallelujah!

Lessons Learned… 

So, what was the lesson learned?  Dopamine and Cheetos suck!  Ha!  No, seriously, maybe there’s a way to talk some sense into the “I want” part of the brain.  When I understand the reasons behind what I am experiencing, it seems to give me some sense of power and control.  Talking loudly to my dopamine, and the object creating the desire (i.e. Cheetos), allowing the impacted parts of my body to be heard (i.e. my stomach), seems to have led to an overall positive outcome.

Am I recommending this aversion-style therapy to those of you suffering from your own dopamine triggers?  Not necessarily.  These days, we are stimulated by the possibility of reward in almost every direction we look:  TV advertisements, social media, grocery stores, gas stations, billboards, and the internet in general which allows us to search and search and search for the elusive reward that will finally give us the pleasure we are seeking.  Perhaps you can perform your own home study with your trigger food, drink, or behavior and report back.  Share what you learn!  

I created a form for your fun and edification on how to perform your own dopamine trigger home study!  Fill out the information below to receive the form and step by step instructions!

I leave you with two questions:

  1. What gets your “I want” triggered?  That is, what stimulates the promise of reward that propels you into action?  (i.e., food, alcohol, shopping, the internet, etc.)  Or what behavior would prompt you to launch your own home study?
  2. When you get what you want, was your expectation of reward fulfilled?  That is, did you experience the pleasure from the reward, or just want more?

To learn more about willpower, I recommend The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.