Dopamine and the Hedonic Set Point
The theory of the hedonic set point asserts that a driving factor of addiction is the dysfunction of our “pleasure threshold.” In essence, the “hedonic set point” is our pleasure baseline—the place where our brain receives enough dopamine to feel a pleasure response. This is what makes us feel good. As we drink alcohol and flood our systems with dopamine spikes, this baseline rises over time.
As this occurs, our brains begin to require greater levels of dopamine in order to feel pleasure. Previous pleasurable experiences, like going for a walk or reading a book, no longer produce enough dopamine to reach our rising threshold. Eventually, the only thing that reaches our pleasure threshold and makes us feel good, is alcohol.
This function is important to consider in the context of stress and anxiety as well; when we experience stressful situations, our body craves regulation. The healthy coping mechanisms that may have helped us relax in the past may no longer work, because our hedonic set point has moved.
This is part of the science behind cravings. We crave regulation and pleasurable experiences, and the only thing that provides this regulation becomes alcohol. When we begin abstaining from alcohol, we slowly ease our hedonic set point back to a normal level. When we begin abstaining from alcohol, we slowly ease our hedonic set point back to a normal level. This process takes time, and it’s important to really dial into self-care practices as you allow your brain to heal and reset.
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