Millennial Existentialism and the Dopamine Addiction Crisis

Whilst genetic predisposition certainly plays a fundamental role in an individual’s mental health; there are nonetheless, other factors that are conducive (or detrimental) to one’s mental well-being. In this article, I want to explore some aspects of modern society that may be fostering poor mental health amongst the millennial generation. Whilst we cannot control the numbers spewed out and given to us by the genetic lottery; we are nonetheless, radically free to decide how we choose to perceive – and more importantly respond – to the cards we are dealt.

“[We are] free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse….”
— Jean-Paul Sartre

 

If you have experienced bouts – or prolonged periods – of poor mental health; or, if you have a history of mental health issues in your family, this article is for you. We must realise that no matter how unfortunate we may feel at times for being endowed with a brain genetically predisposed to depressive, anxious or suicidal tendencies; we must take full responsibility for how we manage our mental health. We must be conscious of the toxic aspects of modern society and become aware of harmful behaviours that we may have unconsciously adopted.

To avoid having a full blown existential crisis, one may be tempted to ignore one’s responsibility and whip out the ‘fatalistic mental health card’ – I can’t change how I feel because I am born with a brain predisposed to X – thus, I will continue to engage in self-destructive behaviours; because, I have no control over how I feel and have no chance of improvement, or recovery. At times, I have viewed my situation through this lens. It’s an attractive and comforting thought during a mental health crisis, because its requires zero effort and, more importantly, it requires zero change. When one is depressed, one is likely to be feeling hopelessly lethargic; thus, the commonly touted ‘self-help’ suggestions such as “Go for a run!” and “Do some yoga!” may not be very helpful. If one can barely find the energy to get out of bed and wash, it is unlikely that such an individual will sporadically find the motivation to step onto the yoga matt and perfect their downward-facing-dog. Now this does not detract from these tools being incorporated into one’s mental health arsenal – they certainly have their time and place. However, I believe that the most important thing for an individual during a mental health crisis, is that they are fully conscious of the harmful patterns of behaviours that may contribute to a further decline in their mental state. The first step to improving one’s mental health is becoming aware of how various activities can contribute positively, or detrimentally to one’s feelings of well-being.

In this article, I want to briefly explore something which –  for the sake of convenience – I will term the dopamine addiction phenomenon. We millennials were born into a drastically different world to our ancestors – even our grandparents generation. Consequently, our brains are continuously bombarded with a plethora of stimuli that we are not cognitively competent to deal with. As we grew-up our parents warned us of the harms of addiction – they warned us of gambling, alcohol and drugs – however in modern society addiction is rife; yet, some of the addictions that our generation struggle with were not even mentioned by our parents – simply because, they didn’t exist to the extent that we face now. Subsequently, millennials at times may feel uneasy; down, or anxious and often, it’s hard to pinpoint why. Whilst there may be genuine underlying medical mental health problems, there can also be societal factors compounding these negative mood states. However, instead of investing some cognitive will-power into discerning the potential causes to this feeling of discontent, we often take the easy option – we crawl under our duvet, consume our high-sugar high-fructose syrup goods and unconsciously scroll through our social media feeds; our brains not fully engaged to the content on our ‘smart-phones,’ as we try to pay equal attention to the white noise coming from the superficial contestants of Love-Island on our laptops (and we wonder why our brains are not performing optimally).

Our moods and mental well-being depend fundamentally on the neuro-chemical cocktail that flows through the three-pound lump of grey mass between our ears. Don’t underestimate how sensitive our brains are to environmental stimuli. Our hormones evolved to serve a specific purpose; modern culture now provides us with frequent and occasionally constant sources of hormone-inducing stimuli that entirely undermine the very function that some of our hormones are meant to serve. For example, we know that dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for controlling the brains reward and pleasure centres. Dopamine is released by the human brain whenever an individual engages in activities that further it’s chance of survival. Prior to the modern age, dopamine surges would be limited to the climax of certain activities, including procreation, successfully hunting down a prey or finding food in the wild. In response to these types of events, dopamine would be released as a climatic reward for the immense effort that courting a mate or stalking and hunting down a prey takes. Unfortunately for the millennial generation, there are dopamine triggers everywhere – including those I have mentioned already – social media and fast-food. Other triggers include video games and HD porn; the latter is an extremely harmful stimuli for someone that struggles with poor mental health, but I will go into this in more detail later in this article. First, I will explain why these activities are harmful.

All the activities that I have listed are known to induce large dopamine spikes over prolonged periods of time. Whilst this flooding of dopamine in the synapse may result in feelings of excitement in the short term, the consistent flooding of dopamine can contribute to depression; a decrease in energy and loss of motivation in the long run. What happens is that our receptors eventually become desensitised to the constant and excessive concentration of dopamine in the synapse. Furthermore, when a stimulus (such as social media or HD porn) is removed, our dopamine receptors remain desensitised. Subsequently, our body requires more and more dopamine just to feel normal or content. This is the general mechanism of addiction. Thus, someone with poor mental health that experiences feelings of low-mood may be inclined at times to use these dopamine spiking-stimuli to give themselves a short-term mental boost; doing so however may be extremely detrimental to such an individual in the medium to long term. Not only will such an individual become dependent on these things to feel normal, they may end up feeling worse than before. Subsequently, an individual with poor mental health or a hereditary predisposition to mental health problems will do themselves a great service to consciously resist drinking from the poisoned chalice of dopamine spiking-stimuli.

Addiction to these cheap sources of pleasure have a host of nasty repercussions; the most common being:

  • Obesity
  • Low mood (even lower than before)
  • Anxiety and stress
  • Lethargy
  • Inability to focus
  • Lack of motivation and drive
  • Erectile dysfunction or general lack of arousal in real-life situations

This list merely includes some of the most common effects that dopamine-spiking stimuli have; there are a host of other equally nasty consequences from cheap sources of pleasure. One must never be tempted for a quick-fix solution to feeling mentally unwell – the stimuli I have listed are illusory solutions; anticlimactic and detrimental.

If you’re feeling lonely do not binge on high-sugar food. If you’re feeling sexually frustrated do not resort to HD porn. If you are feeling depressed and lacking motivation do not binge-watch mind-numbing ‘reality’ TV.

The instant access to dopamine spikes we have today is counterproductive to the biological function of dopamine and has resulted in a generation that – on average – would rather lie in their beds and watch Netflix for 6 hours straight, than read a book. Young men and women turn to porn instead of pursuing a potential mate and partner. We want quick-fix, instant solutions and we are not to blame; we are bombarded with cheap sources of pleasure every minute of every day in modern Western society and it’s often hard to resist. But, if you care about your mental health, you need to become aware and acknowledge whether you may have unconsciously desensitised your brain to the effects of dopamine.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms/effects that I listed above, it is very possible that you have become desensitised – you may want to consider altering your behaviour for the better.

Thus, if you are genetically predisposed to mental health problems, you do not want to make your situation more difficult by desensitising your brain to dopamine; doing so will make it extremely difficult to live a productive lifestyle in the long-run. Desensitisation will result in you becoming increasingly less willing to perform the fundamental tasks that are conducive to mental well-being. If you are feeling depressed and lack confidence about your image, binging on fast-food – although a short-term way of improving mood – is, in the medium to long term, detrimental. Similarly, if you are lacking motivation to socialise, scrolling through social media and allowing your brain to be stimulated by notifications and likes merely compounds the problem and will further reduce your ability to sustain a healthy social life. The same applies to if you are feeling emotionally lonely or sexually frustrated; the real solution would be to find a suitable companion and engage in a healthy relationship – sitting in a dark room scrolling through extreme HD pornography simply re-wires your brain to be aroused by extreme visual stimuli.

We have a generation that sits behind a screen and consumes HD porn at an alarming rate and wonder why it’s so difficult to fall in love and maintain a stable, healthy relationship.

Someone that binge-watches HD porn will soon find themselves searching for more extreme images and videos to stimulate the same level of excitement and pleasure that they experienced the first time they encountered pornography, ‘normal’ sex with a ‘normal’ partner no longer becomes appealing – it is no longer exciting enough. The consequence for regular porn consumers is that they will soon become less aroused by physical interaction with a potential mate.

The porn addicts relentless search for a new, more extreme and more exciting video is similar to the addictive process that a heroin addict goes through chasing the first hit.

It’s time to stop using dopamine-surging-stimuli as a crutch for poor mental health. I read somewhere an analogy that explains this reasoning well – you wouldn’t reward a dog with a treat for sitting round the house and then suddenly expect that dog to start performing tricks. Why would such a dog be motivated to do additional work for a reward that he gets for nothing. The same applies to us. To live a life that is conducive to mental well-being we must be willing to put in the work necessary and start taking pro-active measures to securing our own happiness. If you struggle with your mental health, then one huge positive step in the right direction is to stop rewarding yourself for doing nothing. It is time that the millennial generation woke up and broke free from the neuro-chemical shackles that are dragging us down. We cannot let an unconscious resistance to modern culture keep us in a state of depression, anxiety and loneliness.

The most toxic neuro-thrills that millennials need to resist:

  • Binging on high-sugar/high fat food
  • Social Media
  • HD pornography

If you can resist these cheap short-term mood-boosts, then you are at least ensuring that your genetically predisposed brain is not further exacerbated by unnatural surges in dopamine. You may not have the best hand in the deck, but you are fundamentally free to decide how you act and the behaviours you choose to engage in.

Use the cards you have and play the game of life to the best of your ability.

Do not be fatalistic. Do not be another unconscious member of the distracted collective. Do not allow high-sugar, high-fat fast-food to become a staple in your diet, simply because its relentlessly marketed to you. Do not waste your days and brain cells watching hours of Kim Kardashian and Joey Essex. Do not use social media to bolster your feelings of self-worth. Do not watch pornography. The world we live in is a world of endless opportunity; we have a staggering amount of information at our fingertips, we must choose to engage our brains properly and develop our intelligence – be that intellectual or emotional. Yet we use the internet to scroll through personal marketing apps such as Instagram (because that is what they are) and we compare ourselves with the others we see and wonder why we lack self-confidence.

“If you are on social media, and you are not learning, not laughing, not being inspired or not networking, then you are using it wrong.”

― Germany Kent

We forget that people only show the best version of themselves at select moments. Use social media for what it is – an opportunity to network and self-market yourself. Show the world what you are all about. Your hobbies, your achievements – your real personality; the things that distinguish you from the other 600 million monthly active users on Instagram. There is more to you than your appearance; vocalise it. Network with others that share your passions. We need to stop worshipping false idols on social media and inferring from their professionally staged and polished photographs that their lives are so much better than our own. You would be surprised how many things you have in common with these ‘famous’ individuals. They too have low days, anxieties and self-esteem issues. Also. do not strive to achieve their level of fame – it does not bring with it any additional happiness. Whether you have 1 like on your social media photo – or one million likes – you will not be happy unless you focus on what matters and when it comes down to it, that is our family; our close friends and our passions. We need to move away from this vicious cycle of posting on social media for validation and compliments whenever we feel low.

So long as we use our social media to determine our self-worth, we will always feel worthless.

So, it’s not imperative to delete your Facebook and Instagram accounts, but make sure you use them for what they are. Furthermore, we need to recognise that whilst social media and modern technology allow us to contact our loved one’s all around the world at any moment we desire, such tools are not substitutes for proper inter-personal communication; rather, these platforms should only be used as a last-resort option – merely when we cannot talk face-to-face, or on the phone. We send our friends a message on Facebook or Snapchat and consider that sufficient contact – then we wonder why we feel lonely.

If we are to succeed as a generation, we need to acknowledge these harms and consciously choose to resist them; doing so is fundamental for our collective well-being. It’s time we ditch – or at least monitor our consumption of – these cheap neuro-thrills; it’s time to improve our mental well-being.

“The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned”
— Antonio Gramsci

Article written by Scott Newall

sn13385@my.bristol.ac.uk

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