There is such a thing as an upward spiral, but it has an evil twin. Having less to do leads to less internal chemistry; less internal resources. Less even emotional resources to deal with things. It can make us want to withdraw as our ability to handle what little we do have waffles. This in turn means even less dopamine, and as you can see, this little feedback loop looks a lot like toilet water going down a drain.
This is the paradox of a circuit that helps sustain us and a clue to the nature of depression: the downward spiral effect.
The problem with dopamine is that it is fickle. Stumble out of balance for just a moment and the dopamine system will turn a stumble into a crash. It can start predictably enough: you are in a new town and don’t know anyone. You had a recent tragedy in life and are legitimately grieving. You just don’t know what to do with yourself, which direction to take, so you try to content yourself with idle distractions. They are all legitimate circumstances. Eventually, though, boredom can slip into something else.
Whatever reason your slight disengagement, not doing things will procure less dopamine. With less dopaminergic activity, you become slightly less motivated, slightly less yearning for anything that would require action on your part. Why? With less dopamine, rewards are a little less appealing, and so is the will to attain them. You become irritated as you feel yourself become sluggish; your mind is less sharp and you observe and remember less. Setting one less goal becomes setting a few less; we sleep in longer and take more naps. Irritation turns to anger which gets in the way of even our remaining goals and we make more mistakes. Now we feel that we have almost no juice in the battery, no gas in the tank. We genuinely want to get some rest because we feel tired all the time. Things that once seemed shimmery start to lose their luster altogether; things that once made us sit up and take notice seem barely worth mentioning.
What is happening is a subjective feedback loop that does it’s damage by convincing you to do what is worst for you. Accomplishing fewer things means less dopamine, less drive – of course you don’t want to do anything! As the feedback loop plays out, lethargy turns into apathy and anhedonia – the inability to feel pleasure or motivation. The catch-22 is that we need to do things to get the chemistry to keep doing things. Not doing things prevents us from getting the chemistry that would make us want to do things. We have a stereotypes of laziness that we use to judge others (another chemical function to explore later) but it is a destructive view because when we turn it on ourself, it doesn’t take something into consideration: the ubiquity and predictability of our paradoxical chemistry.
Dopaminergic systems can wreak havoc by attacking anyone’s will, making them tired and making them feel with absolute intensity that they want nothing more than to take a nap. Forever.
Fighting this phenomena is not easy because it is a chemical phenomena. The feeling of having no will is absolutely real: you don’t. Paradoxically, though, to get out of this feedback loop requires nothing less than fighting your biology by actually doing something. Ever felt like you didn’t want to do something but were happy you did after? That is required to short-circuit the downward spiral: mistrusting your subjective radar and taking leaps of faith.
When we have no dopamine we have the inverse of a positive state of psychological rewards: apathy (the inability to care), amotivation (the inability to be motivated), anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure). It makes things worse by attacking our subjective sense of what we should do; making us act in ways that makes us worse. And all people can get this way if they disengage for even a second; our system is completely unforgiving. It is what happens when we dip out of the flow of social engagement and for whatever reason, don’t stay engaged; can’t stay optimistic; don’t know what to look forward to or can’t.
The downward spiral is real, paralyzing and physical. It can be an insidious process that happens to everyone, often through a completely predictable series of events that make sense through dopamine logic, even when our emotions blame us and make it worse.
Why? Why do this to us? Mother Nature’s as cruel as a tough-loving mother here because she does what she does for a cause. It is a cause best illustrated by what happens when we spiral up.