We live in a world that encourages the overstimulation of dopamine.
It’s considered normal to binge watch 10 episodes of a show in one day, normal to scroll mindlessly for 2 hours on TikTok, normal to be glued to your gaming console for hours on end.
All these things have been accepted into our everyday routines because of the dopamine rush they provide, and in turn have replaced activities that are more beneficial or necessary to our daily functioning. Social media is just one example of our unconscious addiction to chasing our next dopamine hit.
Whilst these activities are considered fun for everyone (myself included), they can do more harm than good in the long run. Aside from momentary pleasure, these things cause us to search for other activities that stimulate more dopamine, driving us further and further away from reality.
Sitting down for 30 minutes to study can be difficult as we can’t focus our attention, whilst gaming with friends captivates us for hours on end.
Granted, whilst studying isn’t the most pleasurable activity, you get the gist. We’re becoming more addicted to these high dopamine activities and the worst part is, many people are content living this way because they may think this doesn’t harm them.
Why is over producing dopamine damaging?
Dopamine is a feel-good neurotransmitter in our brain that’s released when we do most things, and effects various brain functions such as memory, pleasure, motivation, attention and mood to name a few [i]. Our dopamine levels tend to be the highest when we receive random rewards.
Homeostasis is the body’s way of achieving a balance of physical and chemical systems. When we begin to overproduce dopamine, we build up a dopamine tolerance and these high levels become our new normal [ii]. Because of this, we lose interest in low-dopamine activities as they don’t satisfy our dopamine requirements. Things we once enjoyed now appear boring to us, and we lose motivation.
For example, you may have loved reading as a child, but now you’re older you rarely pick up a book. This could be because reading isn’t enjoyable anymore due to the low dopamine you receive in comparison to using social media.
This can be detrimental to our daily functioning as we may choose to engage in high-dopamine activities in exchange for tasks fundamental to our daily functioning. For example, opting to order takeaway multiple times a week because you can’t be bothered to cook.
In fact, addiction to gaming has now been recognised in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, section III), which is used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental disorders. It's important to note however, that more research is needed in determining whether it should be added to the manual as a disorder [iii].
What does a dopamine detox consist of?
Despite the name, embarking on a dopamine detox doesn’t mean we deprive ourselves of all dopamine – that would be impossible. Even tasks like drinking water gives us a little dopamine reward.
Dr Cameron Sepah, a clinical professor of psychiatry who popularised the idea of dopamine fasting, states that ‘Dopamine fasting encourages people to reduce time spent on problematic behaviour’ [ii].
A dopamine detox acts as a reset to the brain and the reward system. This is done in order to allow the body to reach homeostasis – a balance – once more.
A dopamine detox consists of abstaining from behaviours that overproduce dopamine in order to break the addictive cycle we’ve found ourselves in.
Whilst some online sources state that a dopamine detox consists of abstaining from any pleasurable activities – I.e. Talking to friends, remaining in solitary confinement, Dr Sepah addresses these false assumptions in his blog post [v].
“In my guide, I was careful to clarify what dopamine fasting IS NOT: an avoidance of dopamine, anything stimulating, or a silent meditation retreat in which you’re not allowed to do anything or talk to anyone. However, the confusion began when a tweet went viral about one guy who refused to talk to a woman due to being on a supposed dopamine fast, despite this being the exact opposite of what I recommend. My protocol specifically suggests socializing/bonding during a dopamine fast, and I have repeatedly told journalists that this is not what my clients and followers do in Silicon Valley.”
Now that we’ve put that to bed, some behaviours to abstain from during a dopamine detox are:
- Drug use
- TV/video consumption (that means no Netflix, Amazon prime video, Hulu, Crunchyroll, YouTube... the list goes on)
- Social media use
- Watching pornography
The science behind a dopamine detox
A dopamine detox is based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and its techniques of stimulus control. By controlling the stimulus, it restricts usage of the addictive behaviour and gives people a chance to feel negative emotions without being able to automatically suppress it.
One successful example of this model was a study conducted on a control group of internet addicts. Using 12 weekly sessions of CBT modified for combating internet addiction, 95% of participants were able to manage symptoms after 12 weeks, and 78% sustained their recovery 6 months after the treatment [vi].
In an article discussing CBT and internet addiction on the Journal of Behavioural Addictions, researchers state:
“In treating Internet addiction, abstinence models are not practical as computers have become such a salient part of our daily lives. Clinicians have generally agreed that moderated and controlled use of the Internet is most appropriate to treat the problem” [vii].
In the society we live in, media use is now something that’s expected of everyone, and with the internet playing such a pivotal role in our daily lives, it’s impossible to live without it. However, overconsumption of this content can be damaging to our mood and wellbeing, affecting us in various ways. That’s why it’s important to regulate our dopamine consumption. Dopamine is received from pretty much every activity; however, we are able to control where we get the majority of it from.
Implementing a reward system
Fortunately, learning this information doesn’t require becoming a nomad or hissing at anything digital. It just means we need to monitor our behaviours and be conscious of what we choose to engage with in our free time. If you find certain behaviours are disrupting your daily life, whether it’s constantly checking your phone or watching Netflix when you’re meant to be working, maybe it’s time for a dopamine detox.
One way of keeping yourself in order is by creating a reward system. Engage in all the low-dopamine activities during the day – this could be work, exercising, reading or cleaning. Once you’ve finished all these tasks, allow yourself a high-dopamine reward at the end of the day - this could be gaming, watching an episode of something, or browsing the Internet. This way, you can condition yourself to get all the necessary tasks out of the way so you can enjoy high-dopamine activities guilt free.