What is Dopamine?
I think it’s important to first talk about what dopamine even is. I don’t want to get too scientific on you, but there are some basics we should cover about the brain chemical. Dopamine is commonly referred to as one of many feel-good chemicals in the brain, controlling your wants and cravings. In other words, everything you do or want to do is controlled by this chemical in your brain. Think of this scenario:
You are in school and feel your phone vibrate in your pocket signaling a notification. You start to wonder what the notification is. Could it be my boss texting me? Could I have won the lottery? Maybe soccer practice is canceled today? The possibilities of what this notification could be rush through your brain. At the same time, your brain is flooded with bursts of dopamine. These shots of dopamine compel you to check your phone, so you reach into your pocket. Turns out it’s just Duolingo reminding you to complete a lesson today.
The potential of what that message could be is far more exciting than the message itself. This is why dopamine can be dangerous. It’s the force that pushes you to watch one more episode or scroll through one more profile. Dopamine doesn’t take into consideration whether something is good for you or not, it just wants to satisfy your cravings.
The Carrot vs. Chocolate Scenario
One YouTuber who did a whole series on the Dopamine Detox is Andrew Kirby. To describe the current problem society is facing with dopamine, he gave this scenario:
Imagine you are at a table with a carrot and a piece of chocolate in front of you. You can only choose one.
Well, your brain will decide which one of these items gives you the most dopamine and 9 times out of 10 will choose the chocolate. You may be thinking: what’s the problem with choosing the chocolate? There isn’t one. However, society has taken the carrot and chocolate scenario and put it on steroids. Nowadays, instead of chocolate its McDonald's, Instagram, Facebook, Netflix, and many more. Instant gratification is everywhere and our brains don’t want to have to wait to get their dose of dopamine.
It’s important to clarify that this isn’t our fault, it’s hard-wired in us to seek instant gratification. And, so many things today are “carefully engineered to release as much dopamine per minute as possible” making it almost impossible for us to choose the carrot.
In the film, The Social Dilemma Tristan Harris describes dopamine as a “digital pacifier”. Take the concept of caffeine tolerance- someone who drinks caffeine on a regular basis requires much less caffeine to get a buzz than someone who rarely drinks it. Well, it is not much different from dopamine. If your brain is accustomed to having huge amounts of dopamine than those levels become your new normal and you seek them to feel comfortable. Once this new normal becomes too high, you won’t enjoy low dopamine behaviors, just like the heavy-drinker won’t enjoy just one beer. It’s a crazy concept. We are so used to high levels of dopamine that our tolerance just keeps rising and rising. So, what can we do about it? This is where the dopamine detox comes in.
What is A Dopamine Detox?
Similar to other types of detoxes, a dopamine detox (or dopamine fast as some like to call it) involves the complete removal of things that stimulate pleasure for some amount of time. Think of it as a holiday with no fun.
What Is Off the Table During Your Detox?
- No phone
- No computer
- No Internet
- No music
- No junk Food
What Can I Do During my Detox?
- Go for a walk
- Be alone in your thoughts
- Document your emotions and feelings
Before I scare you away with this list, I want to make it clear that what you choose to do or not do during your detox is up to you. The above is a fairly extreme detox. Some even make it more extreme by not eating anything the entire day like a real-life fast. But, the choice is up to you. Try to remove things from your life that you find the most enjoyable. For example, if you find yourself clinging to your iPhone all-day, you may want to simply do a digital detox where you lock your phone away in a box for a day. The point is to “change your relationship with this powerful chemical”, whatever your relationship with it may be.
Why Would I Ever Consider Doing This To Myself?
This is a good question. At this point, you may not be convinced that this will help you in any way, but let me try to change your mind. Whether it be Social media, junk food, video games, we all have something in our lives that controls us more than we would like it to. We want to gain back some autonomy. By fasting from dopamine, you are removing the sources of want and desire from your life and abstaining from all the things that control you on a daily basis. Hence, you learn to resist temptation and regain control of your life.
As Andrew Kirby says in his video series, “consuming is much easier than producing, as producing requires exerting will power and taking action”. In other words, it is much easier to scroll through social media than it is to go finish your work project. Why is this? Because consuming requires little work. A dopamine detox can change this. Let me provide a little example that helped me to better understand from The Improvement Pill:
I want you to think of your body like a donkey and your mind as the rider of that donkey. If you want the donkey to move, you have to wave a carrot in front of it (the reward). Indulging in too many stimulating things (TV, drugs, alcohol, social media) provides your donkey with a large buffet of tasty things to eat. So if your donkey has been eating at an extravagant all-you-can-eat buffet all week, he is no longer going to be motivated by a measly carrot because he is full. Doing a dopamine fast is essentially starving your donkey. You are taking that fancy buffet away from your donkey so that afterward, your donkey will be convinced to move by the carrot again.
Make sense now? Good. Performing a dopamine detox will not only make you more motivated to do hard things but will also teach you things about yourself. As humans, we love to self-medicate instead of dealing with our problems head-on. During your dopamine detox, you won’t be able to self-medicate and will therefore be forced to confront your issues and deal with them. It’s like clearing out the fog to finally be able to see the view in its entirety.
How Do You Perform a Dopamine Detox?
Have I convinced you to partake yet? I hope so. I think it could beneficial for everyone. Here are the steps you need to take in order to start your dopamine detox:
- Make a list of what temptations you want to stay away from during the detox (Think of things you feel like you no longer have control over: Do you instantly check your phone when a notification pops up? Have you formed a habit of stopping at the Burger King drive-through after work? Do you find yourself scrolling through social media during a lull in your day?)
- Make a list of things you ARE allowed to do during your detox (just so everything is crystal clear)
- Choose the amount of time you would like to do your detox for (I recommend starting out with one full day. That means starting your detox from the minute you wake up and ending your detox the following morning. If this feels too hard, you can do 12 hours).
- Notify the people in your life that you are doing this detox (This has two benefits: it creates a sense of accountability and creates a sense of space between your detox and your daily life)
- During your detox, I would recommend keeping a journal of your thoughts and feelings. The Improvement Pill provides a great list of writing prompts:
- Do I feel any discomfort today? Where in my body am I feeling it? Is this an emotion or is this physical pain? If it’s an emotion, try to describe it. What does it feel like?
- Why do I feel this way? What things have I been doing that have possibly been causing these issues?
- What can I do to fix this pain? What are 1–3 things I can do tomorrow that will at least somewhat address this pain?
- What would my life be like if I did not do any of these 1–3 things for the next 5 years?
- What would my life be like if I stuck to these 1–3 things consistently?
I want to end by providing a little disclaimer to ensure that my words are not taken out of context. A dopamine detox is not the answer to all of your problems. It’s not magic. There are certain things that a dopamine detox will not fix. Furthermore, doing this detox will not increase the amount of pleasure you feel on a daily basis, it will just affect what things give you pleasure (although we all wish it could).
I know that this so-called dopamine detox may seem daunting and to be frank, it seemed daunting to me too when I first looked into it (I mean, 24 hours without pleasure, yikes!). Nonetheless, I think it’s a super interesting concept and the benefits it yields outweigh the boredom and restlessness that you will most definitely feel during your detox. It doesn’t hurt to give it a try. So go for it :)
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