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The Pleasure-Pain Balance and Your Mental Health

Updated: 6 days ago

Pleasure Pain Balance and Mental Health

The pleasure-pain balance refers to the fact that spikes in dopamine, a neurochemical commonly known as "the feel-good hormone," are always followed by dips in dopamine levels of proportional amplitude; high highs are followed by low lows.

This happens because, at any given moment, you have a readily releasable pool of dopamine. In other words, a stock of dopamine that has been synthesized and is ready to be released from their synaptic vesicles. When this stock has been depleted, it will take some time before it is refilled, and dopamine can be released again. During this period, you will experience a "painful" craving for whatever caused the dopamine release. The more dopamine is released, the longer it will take to replenish.

Moreover, when something causes you to release a large amount of dopamine all at once, even after the readily releasable pool is replenished, your dopamine baseline will be lower. In other words, the readily releasable pool will be smaller, and the amount of dopamine that is released for the same stimulus is reduced.

As a result, the pleasure-pain balance has obvious implications for your mental health. If you allow yourself to be overcome by ecstasy in response to some event or you are constantly engaging in dopamine-releasing activities, such as scrolling social media, watching tv, eating junk food, etc., your dopamine baseline will continue to drop, causing you to feel more and more depressed.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the pleasure-pain balance can be thought of as a manifestation of the balance between Yin and Yang. Large or small but constant fluctuations in your emotional state disrupts this fundamental balance, leading to various symptoms, including anxiety and depression.

An application of the principle of the pleasure-pain balance is consistently achieve goals without losing motivation. If you finally achieve a goal that you worked hard to achieve, and you are completely over the moon and celebrate like it’s 1999, in the following days, weeks, or even months, you may experience feelings of melancholy and aimlessness.

For this reason, it is important, when pursuing a goal, to reward the pursuit of the goal rather than overemphasizing the achievement of it. This means that as you are doing anything that propels you toward your goal (even if it’s something boring or unenjoyable), take a moment to deliberately commend yourself for working diligently and congratulate yourself when you reach minor milestones, and, when you finally achieve your goal, do not get overly caught up in the moment and celebrate too much.

Rewarding the pursuit rather than the achievement of a goal allows you to consistently achieve goals without losing motivation and passion along the way as well as buffers you from the “postpartum” depression that inevitably follows.

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