How to Embrace Discomfort to Enjoy in Life Again

Try Khov
5 min readJul 30, 2023

Over the past few months, I suffered from ADHD-like symptoms.

My attention span was at an all-time low.

I could barely finish my sentences without my train of thought completely disappearing midway.

It didn’t help that I also had immense brain fog.

These symptoms heavily impacted my performance at work and my studies.

As a result, they took a massive toll on my mental health.

To calm myself and avoid the discomfort, I often distracted myself with hilarious memes on my phone or video games.

However, I noticed something: the more that I distracted myself, the worse I felt, and the worse my symptoms got.

Having heard about how social media and easy access to information had an effect on our attention spans, I suspected dopamine might play a role in my symptoms.

One day while researching the effects of dopamine, I stumbled upon Dr. Anna Lembke’s talk: How to Find Balance in Age of Indulgence.

In her talk, she discusses a startling find: That despite having more capital, freedom, and technology, high-income countries were far less happy compared to lower-income ones.

She argues that because of the easy access to social media, porn, video games, and other forms of entertainment, our constant experience of pleasure has lead to a degradation of our mental well-beings.*

Fascinated with her findings, I read her book to learn more.

Before we dive deeper, let’s get a basic understanding of what dopamine is and how it works within our brains.

*Note: It’s important to acknowledge that this analysis doesn’t fully answer why higher-income countries are unhappy. We can simultaneously acknowledge these findings and acknowledge that there are other political, social, and economical factors at play.

What is Dopamine?

At the most basic level, dopamine is a brain chemical (aka neurotransmitter) that’s associated with rewards, pleasure, and expectations.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dopamine

When you eat something like your favorite food, your brain releases dopamine, causing you to experience pleasure.

It also plays a role in driving motivation, which pushes you to take action and seek pleasurable outcomes.

So if dopamine makes us to feel good, why does it seem like it’s the reason we’re so miserable?

First off, dopamine is not inherently bad. It’s a natural brain chemical that’s essential for you to function. If you were completely deprived of it, you’d be a soulless shell. With no motivation to do anything, not even starvation could convince you to move and get food.

It’s not dopamine that’s the issue. It’s the amount of it that can be problematic.

Too much of it can be as harmful as too little of it. To better understand this, we need to look at dopamine through the lens of pleasure and discomfort.

The Pleasure and Pain Scale

In Dr. Lembke’s book, she uses the analogy that pleasure and pain are merely two forces on a scale.

Source: https://as1.ftcdn.net/v2/jpg/03/19/13/72/1000_F_319137282_i5rhwjmPsKYGw94qMIwPgFu2ADIrNZNv.jpg

When the scale tips towards one side, our brain chemistry wants to return to equilibrium. This is why pleasure often feels short lived.

And as one side tips more, the other side will eventually tip down but with greater momentum.

As we increase pleasure, the other side of the scale, pain, also rises. When the pleasure diminishes, we’re left with a more intense sense of pain compared to the initial experience of pleasure.

What goes up, must come down.

As you experience the crash, you’re likely to grab your phone or turn to some form of entertainment to avoid the discomfort.

But little do you know, you’re actually making the situation worse.

While you’re scrolling on your phone, you’re actually getting hits of dopamine, which merely delays and sets up a harder crash.

Over time, you’ll start to realize that the things that you enjoyed and brought pleasure no longer have the same impact, and it becomes challenging to enjoy them as you used to.

This means that as we pursue greater pleasure, our dopamine baseline increases, leading us to require more stimuli than before to experience the same level of joy.

This is what Lembke calls the “paradox of hedonism”:

The paradox is that hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, leads to anhedonia, which is the inability to enjoy pleasure of any kind.

This is why it’s so difficult to get things done after mindlessly scrolling through our devices.

This is why it’s so hard to enjoy things we once enjoyed because our dopamine levels require stronger stimuli to experience the same degree of pleasure.

Embrace Pain to Establish Balance

While Dr. Lembke discusses a few solutions to reverse these effects, one of the most profound takeaways from her research is that we can use our knowledge of the scale to our advantage.

Since pleasure will eventually leads to pain, can the opposite be true? Can pain lead to pleasure?

Absolutely.*

* Note: This does not advocate masochism or sadism. While the studies show that leaning towards one side of the scale causes a feeling of the other in the aftermath, extremes are never recommended and could have long-term harmful effects.

In the book, Dr. Lembke discusses a patient that loves taking cold showers and ice baths. The patient experiences strong discomfort until he eventually gets out and experiences euphoria.

“Michael’s accidental discovery of the benefits of ice-cold water immersion is an example of how pressing on the pain side of the balance can lead to its opposite — pleasure… Pain leads to pleasure by triggering the body’s own regulating homeostatic mechanisms.”

Wim Hof is famous submerging himself in cold water

By leaning towards pain, we ultimately set the scale to work in our favor.

This is why people who workout normally feel less stress after their workouts. Despite the initial discomfort, their bodies allow them to feel a sense of relief and accomplishment.

This profound revelation has changed my life’s perspective.

Instead of dreading my workouts, I look forward to the feelings of relief and accomplishment at the end of them. Perhaps it’s a placebo effect, but recently my body has felt stronger and healthier while my mind feels happier. I even started to enjoy the muscle soreness.

I’ve even decided to start taking cold showers again.

Initially, they were really uncomfortable. However, as I embraced the discomfort, I learned that I do feel much better afterwards.

It also helps me fall asleep easier as it bring down my body temperature after an evening workout.

Conclusion

With this new understanding of pain and pleasure, my life has become significantly better.

While my brain fog still persists from time to time, its impact has significantly dwindled.

My attention span has improved. Some moments I still itch for my phone, but I embrace the discomfort of not satisfying the urge.

Understanding the impact of pain and pleasure, I’ve started to moderate my use of social media and other forms of entertainment. While I occasionally indulge in them, setting limits has granted me newfound freedom to enjoy life once again.

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