Why it feels worse before it feels better: The science of breaking habits

I’ve been experimenting lately with checking email less frequently. The experiment has two purposes. First, I want to simply be less attached to my email. I recognize that being a constant state of responsiveness to email — versus to my pre-established priorities — is making me less effective. But the second reason is that I want to disengage my brain from what I know is an addictive cycle. 

Granted, there are perhaps worse things that I could find myself addicted to than my inbox. But after learning more about the dopamine pleasure-pain trap that most of us are constantly in, I wanted to experiment with what it’s like to break it. 

While neuroscientists have understood this addictive cycle for a while, Dr. Anna Lembke has helped millions of us understand it better through her recent book, Dopamine Nation. In it, she explains that the area of the brain that processes pleasure is the same one that processes pain. She describes the relationship between the two states as a teeter-totter. The teeter-totter can be parallel to the ground and balanced (homeostasis) or tipped in the direction of pleasure or pain. 

What’s important to know is that our brains are wired to always be striving for the homeostasis. So when we do something that gives us a hit of dopamine, or pleasure, our brain reacts by applying an equal counter amount of pain. This is the feeling of comedown we get after experiencing pleasure. It’s our brain’s way of trying to balance us out. Rude, huh? 

What this pleasure counter-balance feels like is a sense of let-down, discomfort, or irritability. The good news, however, is that after the counter-balanced pain, our brains do reach the homeostasis they were seeking. It’s just a matter of waiting it out. 

Where this becomes helpful to understand is in the places we want to adjust our pleasure-seeking behavior, whether that’s cutting back on our over-exercise, curbing our social media habits, stopping skin-picking behaviors, or decreasing our drinking. We might not even recognize these behaviors as pleasure-seeking, because after a while, we need to keep doing them just to get to baseline and feel “okay” rather than happy. But they worked for us — and still do – because they are giving us hits of dopamine whenever we do them. 

To stop or reduce them means that we have to ride out the pain side of the teeter-totter for a period of time, long enough for our internal system to get back to homeostasis. This sounds simple, but when we are in the midst of sitting with our own agitation and unhappiness while starting at our phone or watching others have a glass of wine, this is hard stuff. Our brains are begging us to do more of our habit so we don’t have to feel the discomfort. 

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to how long achieving re-balance. It depends on a combination of how powerful the habit is, how long we’re been doing it, and other aspects of our neurochemistry (e.g. if we are vulnerable to depression). But the good news is that we can get back to homeostasis if our brains stop depending on the habit or substance for the pleasure hit. and most of us can do so in under a month of practicing the change.

For my email experiment, I set some boundaries for myself by deciding to not check it when I was in certain places, then at certain times of day, and finally not on my phone. When I started, I honestly felt jittery and a little disoriented. The email app on my phone felt like it was getting bigger and bolder, calling my name. Predictably, though, my agitation started to dissipate and my focus was improving. 

I can’t say that I don’t still love the rush of a good email, but the pleasure of it has diminished enough and my homeostasis restored enough that the idea of checking is no longer distracting me.

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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