Why We Love to Be Frustrated and Why We Quit

by Jimmy Warden

While listening to a recent podcast, I learned something quite fascinating about the human race. The person I learned this fact from is Dr. Andrew Huberman. Huberman is a professor and researcher of Neuroscience at Stanford University’s Department of Neuroscience. Huberman stated there was a study done by Robert Heath where he allowed participants to stimulate any part of the brain they wished. They could stimulate a feeling of ecstasy, joy, drunkenness, sadness, and anything in between. From listening to Huberman’s explanation of the study, I learned that when humans had the opportunity to stimulate any part of their brain on command, they constantly chose to stimulate the parts of their brain that respond to frustration and mild anger.

At first I was surprised because it seems that a new social norm that has been adopted is to take the path of least resistance. However, when Huberman stated the reason why we love to be frustrated, it made sense. The reason why we love to feel frustrated is mostly because of the neurotransmitter, dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is produced in the brain that sends signals to other nerve cells in the body, which the body perceives as positive emotion. Dopamine is released when we feel positive emotions such as happiness, joy, or ecstasy, to name a few. Dopamine is released when we’ve reached goals, but it is also released when we’re “on the path” to reaching goals. This idea is supported by a study done by a student of Huberman. His student’s study showed that both animals and humans react to visual threats in three ways, fight, flight or freeze. When we are “on the path”, we can think of that as the “fight” response, and in the fight response from this study, there was a significant release of dopamine when are on the path to solving problems, which helps explain the outcome of Robert Heath’s study.

There is also a lot of frustration that occurs while we are “on the path” to completing a goal and this frustration actually expands our brain as it develops new ways for solving problems. There is interference that gets in the way of accomplishing what we want. A lot of this interference tends to come from events that are out of our control, but we do contol how we respond to the interference. In order for our brain to grow and develop, it must experience these frustrations, and work through them, so that it has better mapping of how to navigate that same problem, or a similar problem in the future. This is also where neuroscientists have come up with the term “brain plasticity”.

Brain plasticity refers to the idea that your brain is malleable, stretchable even, while it is in development. During development, we are constantly learning from such a young age, at least until our prefrontal cortex is fully developed by approximately the age of 25. Even after the age of 25, we are still learning. The way we all learn is actually through the dopamine producing, fumingly frustrating events of our lives. If there is learning taking place, we are a bit out of our comfort zone, and we are in the Zone of Proximal Development (this is where the phrase “The Zone” comes from). Even when in the zone, there tends to be an underlying feeling of uncertainty, produced by the fact our brain is trying to figure out how to solve the problems presented by the uncertainty.

When things become uncertain, we tend to have a higher intensity of focus, which also secretes adrenaline and cortisol into our bodies, to help us “fight” to accomplish the goals that are in front of us. However, these are stress hormones that quickly deplete energy from the body. When we are super stressed, our eyes tend to dart around rapidly at anything posing a threat. This is also why deep breathing can help us when we are stressed because it lowers our blood pressure and pulse rate, but it also releases neurotransmitters like serotinin, oxytocin, and you guessed it, dopamine.

Dopamine helps to counteract stress hormones and help us “move forward” even as our physical energy continues to deplete. Once we’ve reached a specific threshold of adrenaline release, our brain sends messages to the muscular system to shut down, and quit. If you’ve ever wondered why you quit even when you think you have more energy, post quitting, it’s because you’ve reached a threshold of adrenaline release. There was a study done by the Howard Hughes Medical System that supports this idea.

In order for us to start feeling less frustrated, we have to keep pushing the thresholds of our frustration, in order to build our mental stamina. This should happen slowly, over time, but it can be of tremendous benefit. It allows us to keep moving forward in the face of challenging times and the best part is that dopamine will be pulsing through us, throughout. Whenever dopamine is released, it is sending messages to both our mind and body that we should be doing more of what released the dopamine. We just have to work through the inevitable frustrations in, allow dopamine to suppress quitting, and keep pushing those boundaries of our quitting threshold. The more that we can do this, we’ll be able to voluntarily take on more stress, we’ll be able to accomplish more goals , and we’ll quit less. It’s just going to take conscious effort and time.

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