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Endorphins | Dopamine | Serotonin | Oxytocin | Cortisol
What I’m about to explain is my opinion and does not take the place of a 12-step program in anyway, it merely sheds some light on an anthropological and biological perspective I found fascinating as it may or may not pertain to addiction and recovery.
I have never heard anyone talk about this topic in any AA meeting and I fully understand if people think this topic should not be discussed in an AA meeting, yet having a deeper understanding of “why” is important to me. If you have questions, comments, or concerns about this article, feel free to do your own research. Also, please keep in mind I am well aware there are many other variables as to why people feel the need to partake in any self-destructive behavior.
For the past several months I have been listening to Simon Sinek on YouTube and came across a talk he gave about five chemicals that are produced in the human body. The chemicals are: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and cortisol. Simon talks about these chemicals and how they effect corporate America, the economy, and the overall health of each and every one of us; not only in our personal life, but also our work life. The talk can be see here: https://youtu.be/d01N4mXdikI.
Simon specifically talked about the 12-Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to provide some very specific examples regarding the importance of understanding how these five chemicals work in the human body. After watching his talk a few times and better understanding the potential correlation between addiction, recover, and these five chemicals, further discussion seemed warranted. And Steve Jobs said it best — “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it.” So I decided to throw my perspective into the ring.
There seems to be both a psychological and anthropological/biological predisposition to addiction. Over the last several weeks I was experiencing a lot of negative energy and I wanted to know why, I wanted to figure it out. Being that I was the only common denominator to all the situations I knew I had to start with myself.
In my quest to figure out my mood I came across Simon’s talk and I had a “light-bulb” moment. What if the five chemicals, of which I knew a little about each, had something to do with my mood and with my new knowledge I could change the way I felt…literally. If we know better we can do better.
In order to understand what I’m talking about you must first understand the five chemicals. And by the way if you have ever felt love, happiness, joy, pride, and fulfillment (to name just a few) these “feelings” are chemically produced in our bodies. I will keep their descriptions short. Please keep in mind the production of these chemicals is autonomic/biologic. Like the beating of your heart, you don't control what and how much of each chemical is produced. If you want the good chemicals produced, be nice and do good things. If you want the bad chemicals produced, don't be nice and do bad things. It’s not that simple, but pretty close.
The first two are the “selfish” chemicals. These chemicals you cannot get from anyone else. They are endorphins and dopamine. Endorphins do one thing only — mask physical pain. Dopamine is in our bodies to make sure we get stuff done; from finishing our “to-do” lists to quite literally eating. When we eat we get a quick shot of dopamine.
FYI…dopamine is highly, highly, highly addictive. Here are a few other things that release dopamine — nicotine, gambling, cell phone text messages, alcohol, shopping, drugs, and sex. See where I’m going with this. In recovery we are in search of “the good” dopamine.
Dopamine is very dangerous and destructive if it’s unbalanced. Keep in mind dopamine is a selfish chemical and does not provide love or trust — sounding familiar so far?
If endorphins and dopamine are the selfish chemicals, the next two chemicals are what makes society great — serotonin and oxytocin. Serotonin is the leadership chemical. Serotonin is all about positive pride, status, performance, and accomplishments. Two things about serotonin - 1) we can give it to each other (a great thing), and 2) we can “trick” it (a bad thing) through the purchase of a materialistic item — cars, shoes, handbags, etc. Need proof — two weeks after you buy your new car you are not that excited anymore. With serotonin running through your veins you confidence goes through the roof. Tons of serotonin is produced at the Oscars!
Oxytocin is the love chemical. It’s all about trust, friendships, hugging, hand shakes, kissing, and sex — physical contact. Acts of human generosity also work very well to get oxytocin. If you help another person in any manner you get oxytocin, they get oxytocin, and even a person who witnessed the act of generosity will get oxytocin. Its obvious this chemical is very good for human beings.
And finally…Cortisol. Cortisol is all about fight or flight and is produced to keep us alive. If you have ever thought there was someone in your home at night, that is cortisol. Anytime you are on high alert due to a stressful event, that is cortisol. It is anthropologically impossible to relax and produce oxytocin with cortisol coursing through your veins. And yes, any bad behavior produces cortisol for fear of getting caught — excessive drinking to cheating on your spouse automatically produces cortisol.
So how does all of this relate back to addiction? The answer is very simple. Before we stopped drinking and using (and because of our drinking and using) we were typically on high alert due to stressful (there are too many to list) situations; therefore cortisol is being produced. Also, due to our psychological selfish nature, we will get dopamine however we can. We will even relapse for it, regardless of the consequences. And because serotonin is all about pride, status, and ego (our core character defects) we will “trick” our minds into getting serotonin by whatever means necessary; from buying some materialistic item to justifying our behavior. And if we are in enough pain our endorphins will kick in regardless if the pain is physical or mental — again we just want to feel better at any cost.
So what are we left with? Oxytocin. Our goal is to produce oxytocin. Everything on our 4th step does not allow us to produce this wonderful chemical. It’s anthropologically impossible for us to produce oxytocin if we are tricking serotonin, addicted to dopamine, needing endorphins to mask physical pain and consistently producing cortisol. For the record…step 9 is all about oxytocin!
In closing, steps 1-12 are all about how to reduce the production of cortisol, dopamine, and the serotonin we can trick — we want the good serotonin. Personally I want to save my endorphins for good pain, like going on a long hike with friends — the endorphins you get while doing an activity like this are good endorphins, unlike recovering from a hangover — bad endorphins. We go to meetings, shake hands, give hugs, celebrate each other accomplishments, have coffee, do service work, and carry the message to increase the production of oxytocin. And step 12 is the biggest supplier of oxytocin in the program. To keep what has been freely given to us, to achieve long-term sobriety, and to just feel better on a daily basis we must continually produce oxytocin and work a strong program.

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