Every time you use drugs or alcohol during active addiction, your brain is flooded with dopamine. This is one of the neurotransmitters involved in feeling pleasure from “natural highs” like having sex, eating good food, or connecting with others.
In addiction, your brain’s reward system is thrown off balance, making it harder to find pleasure in these things. When you come off substances, everything can seem boring compared to the intense highs and lows of addiction.
In early recovery, you may be particularly prone to boredom, because you don’t yet know how to have fun without substances. But boredom can happen at any point in your recovery. It’s okay to feel a little bored occasionally, but you want to avoid falling into a sense of ennui. This is particularly true as the pandemic continues and there’s a lot we still can’t do.
It might sound cheesy, but there are so many ways to engage with the world, you don’t ever have to be bored. Your brain releases dopamine every time you learn something new or become absorbed in an activity. When this happens, you won’t feel bored; according to WebMD, dopamine helps us “find things interesting.”
If you’re regularly bored, try learning something new. Go for things you’re already interested in or have always wanted to try; in recovery, you can replace the time you spent using—or recovering from—substances engaging in fun hobbies.
Before I got sober, I couldn’t fathom how I’d pass the time without using substances. A few days in, I frantically moved furniture around my apartment; it was fine where it was, but I was restless and unsure what to do with myself.
A friend called and we went on a walk; it was nice while it lasted, but I felt intense anxiety because the walk was just one moment in time. The rest of my life stretched before me—and I’d have to fill it without substances.
Soon after that, I decided to immerse myself in new things. Picking up hobbies has kept me from boredom throughout my recovery. If you’ve always wanted to learn an instrument or a new language, now’s the time.
A bonus to this is that you’ll be working towards a goal—accomplishing goals is another way to boost dopamine. Try breaking up a bigger task into smaller ones. This means that you will get a rush of dopamine each time you reach a new goal—and it sets you up for success in learning.
Many of us say we’re bored because we’re endlessly scrolling on our phones—even as we pick up our phones because we’re bored. According to an article out of Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, “If you pay attention, you might find yourself checking your phone at the slightest feeling of boredom, purely out of habit. Programmers work very hard behind the screens to keep you doing exactly that.”
If you do this, I understand. I’m guilty of it too. As the article mentions, social media is set up to keep us scrolling: “Instagram’s notification algorithms will sometimes withhold ‘likes’ on your photos to deliver them in larger bursts. So when you make your post, you may be disappointed to find less responses than you expected, only to receive them in a larger bunch later on…This use of a variable reward schedule takes advantage of our dopamine-driven desire for social validation…until we’ve become habitual users.”
Connecting with others releases dopamine—but social media has diminishing returns because it’s not the same as face-to-face interaction or even a phone call. When I’ve been scrolling a while, I feel bored and disconnected. It’s okay to want to check out on your phone sometimes. Just be aware of how much time you’re spending and how it makes you feel. If bad, disconnect and find something engaging to do.
I’ve found truth in the idea that “being of service” helps people stay sober. It helps you feel engaged—especially when you are invested in the outcome. Think of an issue that matters to you and look into how you can help. We’ve listed ways to be of service during the COVID-19 pandemic here and in the fight for racial justice here.
Everyone gets bored sometimes, but people in recovery should work to avoid regular boredom. Feeling disengaged in life can lead to romanticization of drugs and alcohol. But while addiction is often intense and dramatic, it is never fun. You’ll have a lot more chances for true pleasure, connection, and joy in recovery.
If you are struggling with an addiction or a mental health disorder, there is hope. TruHealing Centers offers high-quality treatment for substance use and mental health disorders in facilities across the country. Our centers offer recreational therapy, so you can learn how to have fun without substances. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.