Getting High Without the Drugs

By Eleanor Levy 02/10/15

Substances can only elicit the neurochemicals that we naturally produce. So, surely there’s a way to extract these feel good neurochemicals without partying so hard!

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I’m no angel. I have partied pretty hard in my time, and to be honest, I’ve had some of the best times when doing so. During those times, I have made life-long bonds with the people I shared those experiences with. Feelings of euphoria and connectivity have certainly opened both my mind and neural pathways to experiences beyond the physical world, but there was a price to pay. Over time, the highs weren’t so high, and the lows became lower! 

In the early days, I could party pretty relentlessly with almost no deficit to pay back, but over the years the pay back has increased to the point where one session could take a couple of weeks to really feel okay again. For me, the deficit meant low mood, irritability, lack of energy and finding mental challenges more taxing, but for some of my close friends the fall out has been much worse.

I’ve studied psychology as a mature student. Through my studies, I have learned a lot about the neurochemistry at play when we indulge in such activities. It has enabled me to understand why some of us habitually hang onto one vice or another, or like myself, have done so sporadically over the years. I have seen some of my closest friends and family use various substances, which on occasion has sadly culminated in addiction.

So, what’s going on when we indulge in such activities and why are some of us more inclined to becoming hooked? Substances can only elicit the neurochemicals that we naturally produce. So, surely there’s a way to extract these feel-good neurochemicals without engaging in such activities!

Well, it all very much depends upon our own individual neurochemistry; the predominant neurotransmitters at play in such circumstances are dopamine (pleasure response) and serotonin (feel-good). 

When we experience something pleasurable, our brain actually produces more dopamine. It can light up certain areas of our brain, one of which is the pre-frontal cortex. This particular area of the brain is responsible for many of our executive functions, decision-making and impulse control.

Over time, it’s not necessarily the reward that triggers the excitement and release of dopamine, but the anticipation of it. When we think about experiencing a particular situation, dopamine is released—we feel good and it reinforces our desire for things that aren’t necessarily ideal for us. It doesn’t necessarily have to be drugs, but thinking about buying shoes, going to a casino or having a cigarette can all elicit a similar reaction in our brains.

If we regularly feed our desire for more dopamine, as with most things in life, our bodies get used to it. The sensitivity of our dopamine receptors can be desensitized, and in certain circumstances, our bodies will start producing less of the hormone. 

Our dopamine levels may, however, be low or unbalanced due to a genetic predisposition of our current life circumstances, for example stress. My close friends, who may have had either low or unbalanced levels, experienced higher highs when indulging when compared to someone like myself, who’s more in balance. This has often resulted in their lows after the event being lower than my own. Ultimately, leading them to suffer from anxiety, panic attacks and, in some cases, serious depths of depression. 

Worse still, I have witnessed some of them becoming more inclined to indulge more regularly to help mask the deficit they’re experiencing. They don’t do it to feel heightened anymore, but to simply feel normal and avoid the symptoms of withdrawal.

Personally, the highs I’m experiencing just aren’t quite what they used to be, the deficit has increased markedly, I guess I’m just growing out of it all. If I’m being honest, the whole experience has become a pretty monotonous one.

So, what is out there for us party peeps who want a buzz without the deficit? 

I have been practicing Vedic meditation for almost a year now. It had such a profound effect on me instantly that since learning I’ve taken every opportunity to study Vedic Meditation. As a result, I have temporarily stalled my psychology studies to do so. I hope to combine the two at some point in my career as they have a lot to lend each other.

Through meditation we can not only repair the damage done, but we can also experience natural highs with no deficit to pay back. Ideal for people like myself who believe the cost benefit ratio of one night's fun just isn’t worth the duration of feeling lackluster. And if we do fall off the wagon, meditation is a great rescue remedy! Furthermore, if we find ourselves in an unfavorable situation with any vice, meditation can be a very effective natural treatment for addiction. 

It essentially works by resetting our bodies to what they were originally designed for. Thousands of years ago when we were sitting in our caves, hunting dinosaurs and wondering what the yellow flickery thing that gave off heat was, our lives were much simpler. Our stress response system (flight-or-fight mechanism) was intended to deal with life or death situations. In moments of stress our bodies diverted all the energy to where our bodies needed it most (probably to run away or throw a spear) and shut down all other unnecessary functions that weren’t needed there and then. It’s an amazing part of evolution that is ideal for short periods of time, but used too frequently, it can have a damaging effect on our bodies.

Now, what does all of this have to do with addiction? Well, stress inhibits the production of serotonin and dopamine. Stress from work, personal life, mortgages, pensions etc… are the same to the body as an angry dinosaur. The same process occurs in our bodies, and if experienced on a regular basis, it stops our hormones from working and being produced efficiently.

The result is that the joy from life can often seem to wane. We don’t experience things with a skip in our step or with the wonder of eternal optimism. So, we can be forgiven for trying to fill that void with external stimuli, sometimes in the form of drugs, alcohol or whatever gives our dopamine-seeking brain pleasure.

The highs we receive can often be heightened by the stark contrast to the mental “before and after.” Feeling low one minute and then ecstatic the next.  

Meditation can give us, and gave me, time to relax in an otherwise busy world. The mind calms down, and with it, the body and nervous system has a chance to function as it should. With practice, I’ve found that the feelings of calm and serenity become the norm, our nervous system stops becoming hyper-aroused and the all-important hormones are given a chance to flourish.

Through meditation, I have personally experienced better highs than I ever did on various substances. Not only are the highs amazing, but because I’m eliciting my own neurochemicals there’s no adverse side-effects. My personal neurochemistry is in balance due to my daily practice. I feel calm and content, daily stresses pass me by without such detrimental effects.

Meditation has helped me regain what’s important in life, but most of all, it has made me feel happy without resorting to external stimuli. I can generate my buzz all on my own.

Eleanor Leavey is interested in natural health and how Vedic meditation can positively influence our all aspects of life.

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