Do You Search For Dopamine?

This isn’t written to blame anybody, but instead, helps you find the roots of certain dynamics to heal. It’s difficult to address, grieve, and heal from pain if you don’t know where it is coming from. It is hard to stop habits if you don’t know at least a piece of the driving force behind them. Our brains are complicated and there’s never a black and white reason for most actions and reactions. They’re usually made up of a combination of things or a repeated occurrence. This post is not just for individuals who survived sexual abuse as a child, but emotional as well.

The other night I was sitting on my bed as I noticed my brain racing. Now, usually, I tend to get sucked into the thoughts until I ended up “waking up” after the consequences of my actions. But this time, I noticed my brain was searching for sources of dopamine distraction. Meaning, ways to feel good at the moment to avoid this sense of feeling “lost, boredom.” Many thoughts and ideas of how to escape that feeling came to mind such as “drink, text this person, go over to this person’s house, etc.” And for a moment, I froze and realized, “I am searching for things I don’t even want all just to avoid this feeling of boredom.”

I realized that I’d usually rather have a hectic head and a trail of chaotic consequences instead of riding out that feeling of nothingness. I forget the exact wording of the quote and who wrote it but there’s this saying “The only cure for the pain, is the pain itself.” That’s when I realized, sometimes pain doesn’t come in the form of shock or a stabbing ache. Sometimes it comes in the form of this dull restlessness without a light insight. For many survivors of childhood trauma, including myself, that kind of pain is worse than the sharp knife kind of pain. This is because of our brain chemistry in response to the trauma, whether it was physically, emotionally, or both.

A few days after that night, I wrote down these thoughts in my notes: “Living in an unstable family environment as a child creates certain pathways in one’s brain. If a child lives in an emotional or physically unstable environment, meaning that they are constantly on guard of other’s emotional states around them, they learn to adapt and become hyper-aware of their surroundings. This creates a disconnect within oneself. If a child has to earn love, their privacy, attention/affection, or respect of their boundaries, they end up not having a sense of self because all of their actions, interests, and personality traits are based upon what they had to do to earn that feeling of safety whether emotionally or physically. They become skilled at being hyper-aware of other’s emotional states by even just picking up the energy in a room. When they adapted their behaviors to what was needed to feel safe and the parent, guardian, or abuser approved of their behavior, this spikes certain chemicals in the brain such as dopamine or oxytocin. Do you see the danger in this? This child ends up searching for that chemical release even if the action is self-destructive or self abandoning. It messes up the idea of what “love is.” It’s common for a child who survived this to become codependent and/or battle with addiction. This is for a few reasons. Once this person who was raised in such an environment tries a substance or certain action that floods the brain with dopamine, they find this fountain of relief that they never knew existed before. They can find that brain chemical response through the new addiction instead of “being behaved, quiet, etc to not be abused, to be accepted, or to not be yelled at, ignored, etc.” Furthermore, because these adult children had spent their entire lives focusing on other’s emotions to stay safe, they never cultivated a sense of self. When you don’t have a sense of self it is easier to get trapped in the cycle of addiction. It might feel like you don’t have much to lose, even yourself because you don’t know or have understood who you are.”

This happens in so many situations I can’t name all of them, so here are a few examples: *trigger warning.

An example of a validation cycle: Dad doesn’t come home until very late. The kids never see him. He might have said, or your mother that it is because “he gets stressed coming home after work because you are too loud for him.” In the child’s mind, they associate their behavior as the reason for not seeing their father. They become hyper-vigilant and quiet and good to try to maintain the behavior for their father to come home at night. One night he randomly comes home early, and there it is! That spike of dopamine that the child will learn to chase. Then the times he doesn’t, the child believes it is to blame it on their behavior for not being “behaved enough.” Meanwhile, from a broader perspective of the situation, that wasn’t probably even the reason the child’s father came home so late every night.

When it comes to physical abuse, many children heartbreakingly know the abuser. Abusers often brainwash the child to think that the abuse is their fault. An example could be with a coach, priest, or teacher: “If you are good, then I wouldn’t have done that.” Again, this child is led to believe that their own actions could prevent the abuse from happening. If the child was in a situation where “it almost happened” but because they didn’t talk back, etc, they believed it saved them from the abuse happening again. Whereas in reality, their actions are not the reason for the horrific thing that adult is doing.

My abuser was a relative on my mom’s side of the family. She had a difficult time accepting it for many reasons. The topic was not something to bring up with her at all. I remember fainting at the doctor’s office in high school after a PTSD flashback. When she came to pick me up because I couldn’t drive, I told to her why I fainted. She pretended to not hear me. This response had been happening since the abuse occurred up until about a year ago. The only way to stop the “silent treatment” was to either bring up something about her, something nice she did, or to apologize for bringing up the abuse. It wasn’t until I moved out was when I realized how messed up that was. But when I lived at home, I thought this was normal. I would feel “loved, accepted, or like I did the right thing” when I apologized. I learned to monitor my words to not be given the silent treatment and when she didn’t give me the silent treatment or stopped after I apologized, I’d feel that high, love, and validation. Today, it’s still not a conversation we can talk about easily, but it’s not as bad as it once was. Again, there is that “endorphin rush” I learned to chase by being hyper-aware of others and abandoning my own emotions.

The list can go on..

The good news now, is that if you can relate, you are now aware of why you engage in certain cycles and behaviors. This is not something I have “overcome” (yet.) It’s something I became aware of recently. As of now, here are a few things I have learned that are good to keep in mind when unlearning these patterns.

  1. Just because you say no to someone, doesn’t mean they will ignore you or hate you.
  2. If you have to act a certain way in order to be loved, that isn’t love, that is manipulation.
  3. You should never have to supervise your actions and opinions in order for your friend, parent, or partner to respect you.
  4. Chances are, our brain searches for that “high” we get by avoiding conflict etc. Because this happened in childhood and was a learned behavior, we now can use this obstacle as an opportunity to re-learn that these “feel good” chemicals don’t just occur when we escape punishment.
  5. Since we now have the awareness, blaming the past and people won’t help us, sure it can be used as a reference guide like a rear view mirror in a car, because it was the cause, but now it is now up to us to unlink abusive behavior with love and feel good chemicals in the brain. We have control of the steering wheel now. This takes a long time.

It’s time to practice listening to yourself and using your voice. (This is something I AM learning as I write this, trust me ha.) That link between addictive behaviors and codependency is just another way of achieving those “highs” in a self abandoning way. Forgive yourself, it was something you had to learn to do to feel protected and loved. But now, you know that the abuse or other’s behavior was never about you, caused by you, or avoided because of you.

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