Ah – dopamine – the wonder drug! Dopamine is a naturally released chemical that gives us a really intense hit of positivity, lusted after by all of neurodiversity (that’s everyone in the world), not just by neurodivergents. We find our dopamine from experiences such as good food, good sex, shopping sprees, good conversation, love, and much more besides – it’s all down to the individual.

Essentially, dopamine gives us a feeling of pleasure. What’s not to love about that?

Well, dopamine’s role isn’t just to give us pleasure, it helps us regulate mood more generally. It helps us to concentrate, prevents us from feeling low and gives us a sense of achievement. It contributes towards a good night’s sleep, plays a vital role in memory, controlling our bodily movements and improving learning. That surge of dopamine that encourages us, albeit unconsciously, to achieve our goals – it’s the lure of that feel good reward.

Still sounding like there’s nothing to lose in maxing out our dopamine hits at this stage, right? So why have I even mentioned it here? Well, it’s a well-established theory that one of the key features of ADHD is that we lack the capacity to sustain dopamine levels for enough time for them to be effective. It’s not that we don’t produce dopamine, it’s that we are not able to sustain it. This leaves us low in dopamine, which in turn leaves us looking for more and more dopamine hits, using external stimuli. Here are some examples of how we might find those:

  • Buying lots of nice stuff
  • Adding yet another animal to our tribe
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Smoking and vaping
  • Wild socialising
  • Dancing
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Making sudden and dramatic life decisions
  • Swift relationship changes

The list is as long as every experience that is humanly possible, because it all depends on what gives each individual their dose of dopamine. Everyone in the world enjoys and needs doses of dopamine – some of us have too much and some have too little. The trouble with having too much is that then we can’t cope with having less, so we seek more. When we seek too much that becomes the cause of the lack of dopamine. So, a craving for sugar stems from the dopamine fix it gives us. We seek more and more sugar in order to keep getting that hit. We become unhealthy, we don’t sleep well or function effectively. Our solution can often be just to consume more sugar, more caffeine, more drugs.

All of this can make us difficult to be around; it can make us difficult to be inside! We can be argumentative, angry, unsettled and addicted. We feel overwhelmed, unmotivated and lethargic without our dopamine sources. We can over-eat, we can start taking illicit drugs, seeking unhealthy relationships, gambling – it’s a long list. None of this is our fault. We are doing our best to compensate for an essential body chemical. And we’re doing it in the only way we know how.

So now you can see how closely connected dopamine is to ADHD. We lack the ability to maintain dopamine levels, so we lack focus, we experience mood swings, we don’t sleep or recall information well, we are disorganised, we’re potentially in debt and overwhelmed with responsibility, ironically this could be as a result of impulsive actions that were aimed at finding those dopamine hits!

We all need dopamine, it’s a question of getting a healthy amount. Drugs like Ritalin, often prescribed for ADHDers, aim at increasing the amount of dopamine in our systems so that we are able to function more effectively without seeking unhealthy alternatives.

For those of us who don’t want or can’t access ADHD prescription medication, don’t panic! Exercise, healthy eating and meditation ALL increase the amount of dopamine in our systems. Give it a Google. And remember, it’s not our fault. But knowing why we feel as we do at least gives us the tools to do what we can to counteract it in ways that don’t hurt us.

Here’s a Harvard article on dopamine, for those who want to read more → click here.