ADHD and Impulsivity: What Happens When You Look for Dopamine in the Wrong Place?

Do you cringe at the pile of empty online shopping boxes on your living room floor? Are you dreading having to confess to your partner that you overslept because you spent another long night playing video games? Perhaps you’re sick of not being able to control your fingers as they swipe past another social media reel at 1am. Many people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) feel that they “lack self control.” This is because ADHD is a condition of self-regulation, particularly when the behavior provides quick and immediate surges of joy. Risk-tasking, impulsive decision-making, and binging on activities that bring high degrees of joy and novelty can be common. ADHD and impulsivity are linked because the ADHD brain experiences lower dopamine than the non-ADHD brain, so it needs more of it from the outside world to function optimally.

While we all need dopamine to feel satisfaction, motivation, and joy, not all dopamine-seeking behaviors are created equal, and some ADHDers fall into patterns of dopamine-seeking that lead to excessive guilt over their struggle to manage their chosen dopamine source.

The ADHD Brain

The brain is a complicated and unique organ. No two are alike, and the field of science is still wrestling with the basics. As a result, the reasons for why ADHD brains work the way they do is still a topic of ongoing research. However, one thing that seems to be clear is that the dopamine reward system works differently in ADHD brains than neurotypical brains. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for alerting the brain to rewards (when something that makes you feel good is coming and when something that makes you feel good is being experienced).

In neurotypical brains, dopamine flows in a regulated pattern. In ADHD brains, there are less dopamine receptors (the part of the brain that receives the dopamine), resulting in ADHDers experiencing low dopamine levels. As a result, ADHDers experience the chronic urge to find novelty (newness leads to higher levels of dopamine), such as binging on fun, thrill-seeking, and sometimes dangerous activities.

Executive Functioning

The frontal lobe contains brain tasks called executive functions. These are responsible for planning, working memory, filtering out distractions, sustaining motivation, organization, and self-regulation. As a result of low-dopamine in the brain and high-dopamine seeking to make up for it, the brain’s executive functions are…inconsistent. ADHD and impulsivity issues become linked because impulse control is managed by adequate dopamine supply. Without it, quick decisions to make the purchase, interrupt others in conversation, or leave bed to play the video game until 2am are made…quickly.

Unconscious and Unhealthy Dopamine-Seeking

The issue with dopamine-seeking activity is that until a person understands their own unique ADHD brain, they unconsciously cope with low dopamine through higher thrills. This can be the source of great creativity and joy, and isn’t always a bad thing. But sometimes dopamine-seeking leads to not-so-great stuff. For example, a lot of late fees, hiding video game usage from others, or feeling demotivated by your ability to practice self-control, to name a few. In fact, the first step in improving impulse control is understanding where you might be unconsciously getting dopamine needs met in ways that aren’t working for you.

Building Healthy Dopamine-Seeking Habits

Getting awareness around dopamine-seeking is the first step toward self-regulation. The next step is learning healthier ways of getting dopamine. For example, self-care (cringiness aside). It’s a popular word these days, but for the ADHD brain, it’s a critical concept. Many people who seek dopamine in unhealthy ways aren’t good with self-care (e.g. getting sleep, remembering to eat, having social time with real humans). Learning to improve self-care is a big step toward regulating the ADHD brain in better ways.

Begin Adult ADHD Treatment in Columbus, Ohio

Looking for more individualized support? You don’t have to feel out of control forever. ADHD-focused therapy can help improve regulation. Our counseling practice in Columbus, Ohio has caring therapists who specialize in ADHD testing and ADHD treatment. To start your counseling journey, follow these simple steps:

  • Fill out the contact form to schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation.
  • Meet with one of our caring therapists.
  • Stop feeling dysregulated. Start finding control.

Other ADHD Services Offered at Focused Mind ADHD Counseling

Adult ADHD treatment is not the only service we offer at our Columbus, OH counseling practice. At Focused Mind ADHD Counseling, we offer a variety of mental health services, including ADHD testing. As an adult with ADHD, we know you may also benefit from anxiety treatment for ADHD, counseling for men with ADHD, or depression counseling for ADHD. You can also view our blog for more resources and helpful info!