Tag Archives: neuroscience

On anticipation as habit: dopamine and desire

Intermittent reinforcement is a schedule of rewards for certain behaviors or responses but without any predictable pattern. In other words, the reward comes periodically, not every time it’s performed.

It’s the slot machines, where you sometimes win but you keep pushing the levers because this might be the moment, it’s the social media where you keep checking to see if somebody liked your post, it’s scanning all day for text messages and notifications, it’s the relationships where sometimes somebody is nice to you, but not all the time, it is the shopping app that says you liked this, so maybe you would also like this; it is the personal visual stimuli recommendation that pops up on your screen because you previously watched something; it’s the unpredictability of a parent who at times showers you with attention and sometimes completely ignores you, it’s the hard to get reward.

Many people think that the neurotransmitter of pleasure is released when the brain receives the reward, but dopamine is actually released in anticipation of a reward. It is the excitement of craving and desire. A recent study found that people have higher dopamine levels when they shop online and they are waiting for their item to arrive, rather than buying it immediately in a mall.

Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist at Stanford, studied monkeys in conditions where they humanely received coveted food rewards by pressing a button. After 10 presses, the treat appeared. There was a surge of dopamine while pressing the magic button. It’s the dopamine that keeps the monkey pressing the bar until the treat arrives. Dopamine significantly diminished once the monkey participants realized that the 10 presses was all they consistently had to do. Immediate gratification is, well, immediate. And then over.

In a second experiment, the monkeys received the food treat only 50 percent of the time, randomly, after they pressed the bar. What happened to the dopamine in that situation? Twice as much dopamine was released when there was only a 50/50 chance of getting the food treat.

Our brains are wired for dopamine. It’s part of us. But the constant craving for dopamine can lead to repetitive behaviors and ultimately deplete the very receptors evolved to receive dopamine. Understanding our anticipatory nature and desire for pleasure is important to address behaviors that can become unhealthy or even addictive. The chase becomes the pull. There are strategies to reduce this cycle.

Check out Dr. Sapolsky’s book which is very interesting and highly readable, on our propensity for good and bad behaviors, which are not unrelated.

You Can’t Pour From An Empty Cup

You Can't Pour From an Empty Cup: Self-Care and Practical Sobriety

I was honored to be asked to participate on a panel at Tales of the Cocktail. The theme of the presentation was self-care and sobriety in the bar industry, a subject that lines up well and builds on my recent presentation for ROC-DC on Mental Health and Wellness in the Restaurant Industry.

The name of our TOTC panel was You Can’t Pour From an Empty Cup: Self-Care and Practical Sobriety. My notes and comments, from the psychology perspective were integrated with the contributions of two leading bar industry leaders, and moderated by Brenna McHugh, who is both an industry leader and a mental health counselor.

You Can't Pour From an Empty Cup: Self-Care and Practical Sobriety

Some highlights:

  1. “Family Dynamics”  –  The restaurant business is a family: functional versus dysfunctional families; social psychology, and the industry.
  2. The importance of carving out routines and following through. Because your schedule can change arbitrarily, long hours, and other unforeseen events, making your own routine and following it for sleep, meals (shift food is not mindful), self-care, fiscal practices (paying yourself every two years, rather than tips being being seen as more random income), and consistent exercise is important.
  3. Realizing that the industry is your job. It’s good to have great colleagues, but having friends, family, and loved ones outside of the profession is healthy and necessary.
  4. Discovering medical resources: community mental health centers, and low fee or reduced fee mental health.
  5. Awareness of drinking culture and avoiding substance-abuse in a conscious manner, such as being sober curious, letting colleagues know that you may not want to drink excessively. More risk for younger members of the industry.
  6. Embracing the unique aspects of the industry: teamwork, dealing with a wide range of clients, high-pressure shifts, variable hours and shifts, the ups and downs of being a tipped employee. Alcohol temporarily reduces anxiety. BUT: Alcohol in excess increases anxiety and depression long-term because of dopamine and serotonin receptor depletion.
  7. Buddhist perspective  – Unlearning desire. In Buddhism, this kind of desire is called Tanha, which literally means thirst. How to allow a desire without acting on it, is the premise of both Buddhism and positive psychology.  Question: What is the desire?  Answer: Blowing off steam, decreasing stress after work, Pattern/routine, Being with work family.
  8. Strategies for how to stop or reduce drinking:
    1. Meditation and mindfulness. 10 to 15 minutes a day of sitting with yourself and connecting with yourself with love and acceptance. Make this a daily practice in your schedule.
    2. Plan and prepare: every single morning think about situations that might crop up throughout the day were you would ordinarily drink. Make a note of them. Being prepared and knowing what you’re going to do in advance gives you control and confidence, you can even practice what you might say to someone who might be expecting you to drink or even put pressure on you.
    3. Visual imagery and rehearsal. Athletes, coaches, business people do this all the time. They imagine being successful in a specific situation or challenge, with extreme detail.
    4. Stay home if you have to. Keep a list of things to nurture and indulge yourself. With my clients, I call this the relaxation box. You pull it out, and it might have your favorite soft throat, candle, music, bath salts, journal, favorite book, and personal notes from loved ones, or, from you to you.
    5. Go easy on yourself. You’re learning a new skill, and it takes time and practice.
    6. Focus on the gains. I always tell clients, add something to your life. Don’t think about or talk about deprivation. Success comes from adding positivity.
    7. Get some support. If you feel your friends, family, colleagues cannot provide that, get online and find a support group, community, forum, or referral to a therapist you feel comfortable and safe. Checking in regularly helps you stay accountable and feel not alone.
    8. Increased access to mental health services (my program for independent restaurant workers in DC, launching this summer). Changing our thoughts and feelings about drinking is what leads to sustainable change. Lack of info, stigma, and worries about being diagnosed with substance abuse keep many tipped workers without coverage. Embolden provides free screening, diagnosis, and recommendations/referrals, as well as low fee treatment where needed.
    9. Safety concerns: How will you get home after post shift drinking? In DC, Metro ends at 11 or 12. Uber is expensive. MANY drive home drunk. Employers can be held responsible (liability) if something bad happens.
    10. Mindful drinking: Planning all of your drinking 24 hours ahead of time. Having a friend as a sponsor.
    11. My approach as a therapist: you CANNOT take things away abruptly. You ADD things. Someone just asked at a DC restaurant and bar wellness panel; “I am stressed, drinking more after shifts; working six days a week. Cut back on one drink per week.
    12. Have a personal post work routine: Music, Candle or aromatherapy, podcasts, self-pleasure, take a bath, journal.

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