The Chemistry of Addiction Explains Why Disappointment Hurts So Badly

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Photo: Bre/AFP/Getty Images

As many Clinton supporters have suddenly rediscovered, disappointment is a powerful emotion. While it doesn’t get the same attention as rage, fear, and grief, it’s no less limited in its ability to unsettle and upset: The feeling of being let down is actually one of life’s toughest emotional experiences. And that makes it especially difficult, and dangerous, for people who suffer from addictions.

The connection between disappointment and increased risk of relapse is especially apparent today, in discussions across the web and in support-group meetings. Across the country, Clinton supporters struggling with addiction are stunned, despondent, and grappling with the unique way last night’s outcome threatens their health. One Reddit thread about the election, for example, is filled with comments like “I have not wanted to drink so badly since I quit,” and “Tonight is pretty much the first time in 10 years I’ve had the thought of drinking seem appealing.”

A decrease in resistance to drug cravings is a common response to disappointment; the feeling is inextricably linked with the brain chemical dopamine, which is well-known for its role in driving addictions. But understanding how dopamine and disappointment mix can help ease its sting, whether you have an addiction or not.

Although people tend to think that dopamine is the brain’s “pleasure” chemical, it’s actually far more complicated. Dopamine has many functions, including having a hand in regulating movement and motivation, but the one that’s most relevant here is its role in linking actions, experiences, people, and environments to pleasure — and pushing us to re-create those circumstances in pursuit of the same result. Basically, certain dopamine systems attempt to predict what’s rewarding, and then motivate us to seek it. For this to work, however, the brain must generate expectations about the future.

And this, of course, can be a setup for disappointment. Here’s what happens: The first time someone experiences an unexpected reward — let’s say a co-worker has left chocolates on your desk — your dopamine levels rise, you feel happier, and your brain associates the desk and the fact that it’s Tuesday and lots of other coincidental experiences with getting yummy candy. The next time those factors coincide, you expect chocolate and your dopamine goes up. But when you don’t get it, sadly, your dopamine levels drop back down.

Researchers call this a “reward prediction error” — your dopamine systems use your past experience to predict what will make you feel best. And when that fails, it hits doubly hard: Not only do you not get what you wanted, but you also feel the displeasure of having been wrong, and the associated dopamine drop. Losing hurts even worse, in other words, when it’s not what you were expecting — a neurological explanation for something that so many people already know too well.