Dopamine-Fueled Stress Relief: How I Handle the Itch for Reward

Karyn Hall, PhD, writes The Emotionally Sensitive Person column on PsychCentral, and she recently posted a piece on how dopamine drives us to seek out sources of pleasure (“Just One More Pair of Shoes and I Can Cope with this Stress”). Dopamine, she says, is about the anticipation of reward—not the reward itself, spurring us to go after things we think will make us feel good (online shopping, anyone?)

Like you, I love the rush of finding and purchasing a great new pair of shoes. But I long ago learned that my checkbook couldn’t keep up with my need for the dopamine high of a killer product at the right price, at the right time.

I also found that I can extend my dopamine high by being sure to enjoy the things I DO have, rather than stay focused on what I don’t. I know that if I stay fit and strong and maintain my weight, I get many more years out of my clothes. Plus, exercising also causes the dopamine rush, making it a pleasure all its own.

My rule of thumb is this: I make sure I understand why I’m doing what I’m doing. And so to this end, I put stress relief activities into four quadrants: active, passive, positive, and negative. Going for a run is active and positive, while passive and positive is breathing and meditation. Passive negative? Watching TV, smoking, drinking.

Some activities can be confounding, though. Take eating: It’s active, but can be positive or negative, depending on what you’re eating and why (the real question is how will I feel after?) Shopping is active and can be positive or negative, depending on what you purchase and why—and how useful it is after the high wears off.

I recommend trying to create the perfect cocktail of stress relief activities that are as active and positive as possible; staying active and engaging in things that support my health. And yes, I indulge in occasional power shopping when the mood hits and circumstances warrant it. One of my very favorite activities is making a healthy, home-cooked meal, which is active relaxation and social, making it an extremely effective and guilt-free strategy.

What do you do to manage your dopamine-fueled urges? What works—and what do you recommend?