How to make your brain’s neurobiology work for, not against you
It’s the new year.
It’s when we take time to think over the good and the bad things we’ve been through, and the lessons we’ve learned. It’s also when we are likely to consider detoxing from holiday excesses.
One thing I certainly indulged in this holiday season was binge-watching shows episode after episode. (Any Band of Brothers fans out there?)
I figured I should take the time to relax and enjoy low-effort, high-dopamine activities before getting back into work.
But guess what? The more movies I watched, the more I dreaded working on my next assignment. I ended up procrastinating by watching more movies—even when the enjoyment and time investment ratio began to drop into the negatives.
That’s when I started looking seriously into the dopamine detox.
A detox with a difference
A dopamine detox is an approach to daily or weekly activities that can be used to break addictive, compulsive behaviors and help you find more enjoyment in doing hard things.
The phrase “dopamine detox” is somewhat gimmicky and the “science” behind it has been questioned by experts. Still, useful techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), like those practiced during a dopamine detox, can help get us out of ruts and begin enjoying our lives—and even our work—again.
A dopamine detox may be just the boost you need to be more productive, creative, and focused in your work, and help you stay present in your day-to-day activities.
Let’s examine the practice, bust the myths, and pick out the best parts of this theory in order to reset ourselves for the new year!
What is dopamine anyway?
Dopamine is the essential “feel-good” neurotransmitter involved in the dopaminergic motivation pathway. It’s released during or after an activity to encourage us to continue engaging in that particular activity.
Dopamine is also why we eat, sleep, interact with people, work toward professional goals, and make healthy New Year’s resolutions.
But too much of a good thing can become a problem when we’re constantly getting larger-than-life doses of dopamine while partaking in mindless scrolling or gaming. The standard amounts of dopamine released while doing other less instantly gratifying, but more rewarding activities pale in comparison.
How do you know if you could benefit from a dopamine detox?
Simple: When you find yourself craving unproductive or unhealthy activities and substances, and begin losing interest and enjoyment in doing important, productive tasks.
If you’re still unsure about whether a dopamine detox could help, check if you relate to the following statements:
- I find it difficult to stay focused at work or school.
- I should do something, but I just can’t muster up the willpower to do so.
- I’m craving a rich, sweet chocolate cake although I’ve just eaten a whole sleeve of cookies.
- I fill my free time with entertainment and pleasurable activities that don’t require much skill or effort.
- Whenever I work or study, I have to be eating something tasty or listening to distracting music, or else I just wouldn’t do anything.
Thanks to distractions, we cease to find enjoyment through monotasking our way through productive activities. In some cases, we might turn to substances and activities to experience short-lived bursts of feel-good emotions through dopamine release.
This may soon lead to an over-reliance on dopamine to get us through a workday. We end up wasting time, losing focus, and producing sub-par work.
What’s the cure? I’m glad you asked.
Dopamine detox: A quick definition
A dopamine detox refers to a period of time during which a person intentionally limits or eliminates activities that increase dopamine levels in their brain. This may include using social media, watching television, or consuming certain foods.
A dopamine detox is not a medically recognized treatment; however, there’s much to learn from cutting back on our dependence on dopamine, getting rid of addictions, and relearning to enjoy doing hard things.
Let’s take a look at what research has shown us thus far.
The science behind dopamine and addiction
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in the brain’s reward and pleasure systems. Released in response to pleasurable experiences such as eating, sex, and social interaction, dopamine is thought to play a role in motivating behavior and reinforcing habits.
Studies have shown that dopamine is involved in addictive and compulsive behaviors, including but not limited to drug abuse, gambling, and even online shopping.
When an individual engages in an activity that increases dopamine levels in the brain, they experience pleasure, which then makes them want to continue participating in that activity.
It’s like how your brain gets a little high whenever a new email pops up in your inbox, making it hard to stop compulsively checking your email.
When the brain begins to associate a certain activity with the release of dopamine, it doesn’t take long before you keep returning to that activity without much thought.
Here’s how an addition is built: As you engage in a pleasurable activity, your tolerance level goes up, which means you’ll need to do more of that activity to achieve the familiar high. When that activity is paused (or a dopamine-inducing substance is removed), the individual feels demotivated, lifeless, or even depressed.
It comes as no surprise that dopamine is also involved in why we experience desire, directly impacting our impulse control and decision-making. Changes in dopamine signaling in the brain have been linked to disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Keep in mind that dopamine isn’t evil, however. It’s designed to keep us alive and interested in the world. It’s designed to help us succeed as creators and workers.
It becomes something to watch out for when it’s overused, depended upon, and misunderstood.
Criticisms, and the overuse of “dopamine detox” in popular culture
Dr. Cameron Sepah’s “Dopamine Fasting 2.0” method brought the idea of a dopamine detox to the public in October 2019.
“Dopamine Fasting 2.0 is an evidence-based technique to manage addictive behaviors, by restricting them to specific periods and practicing fasting from impulsively engaging in them, in order to regain behavioral flexibility.”
However, since a “dopamine detox” is not a scientifically recognized treatment, there’s no scientific evidence to prove that reducing dopamine intake has any specific health benefits. As a result, some experts have criticized the use of the term “dopamine detox”. They argue that it may be harmful to suggest that dopamine is inherently “bad” and that reducing its levels may be potentially unhealthy.
The good news
Dopamine fasting isn’t just a fad, however. The scientific consensus on dopamine fasting for people addicted to excessive internet use shows that moderated and controlled use of the internet is an appropriate and effective approach to curb internet addiction.
Another specific study on Facebook users revealed that dopamine fasting helped users reduce depression, regain precious time, and engage in more healthy activities.
Some claim that dopamine detoxes are simply CBT, mindfulness, and classic behaviorism repackaged in modern terms. They have a point; after all, over four hundred years ago French mathematician, physicist, and religious philosopher Blaise Pascal had already said:
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Could CBT be the answer?
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that focuses on the connection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Commonly used to treat a wide range of mental health conditions, CBT may be helpful in curbing addiction and compulsive behaviors.
A 2017 study suggests that CBT improves brain function in certain patients, especially when it comes to resisting compulsions. Substance abuse, addictions, and relapses after treatment can also be effectively treated with CBT, according to 2010 research.
Here are three techniques from CBT that can be helpful in breaking addictive and compulsive behaviors.
- Identifying and challenging thoughts about the behavior
This involves recognizing beliefs about yourself and the activity that drive the dopamine-spiking behavior, and questioning whether those thoughts are accurate and helpful.
For example, a person might believe that using drugs or alcohol is the only way to cope with stress, but this thought can be challenged by exploring other coping strategies such as journaling, seeking counseling, or making some mindful changes to their workday.
- Creating a plan for change
The plan for reducing our overreliance on dopamine might include identifying triggers for the behavior, finding healthy substitutes for the pleasurable activity, and setting rewards for achieving the goals.
Be careful when choosing substitutes for high-dopamine activities like endless web scrolling and compulsive inbox refreshing, however. It’s all too easy to fall back into a dopamine-dependent loop by replacing compulsive behaviors with other activities that seem productive but don’t really get you anywhere.
- Developing healthier coping skills
Dopamine is tied to both our pleasure and pain receptors in our brains. When we’re dopamine-deficient, our internal balance is tipped toward pain. Addictive and compulsive behaviors that feed us high levels of dopamine often serve as coping mechanisms when we’re facing difficult emotions or situations.
That’s why developing healthy coping skills is crucial as we take a dopamine detox. When our dopamine levels are reduced, we might feel more blue or depressed than usual, simply because those abnormally-high levels of feel-good emotions simply don’t occur anymore.
Here’s where cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) comes in. The central idea of CBT is to encourage the patient—in this case, you and I—to take responsibility for our own situations and find mindful, meaningful ways to sort out our behavioral issues.
CBT techniques for brain detoxes include the following:
- Other mindfulness practices
- Breaking down overwhelming thoughts, tasks, and problems into small, manageable pieces, and approaching them one by one
- Exposing yourself to uncomfortable situations (or in the case of a dopamine detox, reducing time spent engaging in low-effort, high-dopamine activities)
These techniques are there to help you bring a more mindful approach to resetting your brain and retraining yourself to enjoy work again while letting go of compulsive behaviors.
A simple outline for a dopamine fast
As Anna Lembke shared with Freedom, a dopamine fast is a 30-day period of abstinence from the drug of choice. This “drug” is the one thing that’s taking up most of your time and energy; it could be social media, email, or non-digital distractions. This “fast” gives time for the dopamine levels in our brains to return to a more balanced, healthier state.
After this fast period, Lembke recommended a moderate or total abstinence approach to the drug. She gives three types of “self-binding strategies” to help you maintain a healthy relationship with high-dopamine activities:
- Time: This means literally pressing the pause button on the device, or committing to using that “drug” only on certain days of the week, or certain numbers of hours per day.
- Space: Space refers to literal geographic barriers. This might mean keeping the distraction out of the bedroom at night or restricting its use to the office.
- Categorical: This is where we say, “I’m going to take my drug of choice and make it sacred, something I only use in certain settings, or only on special occasions.”
It’s the things we do before being met with temptations that prepare us to withstand unhealthy urges.
A dopamine detox might look like any (or all) of the following:
- Go one week without social media, TV, movies, YouTube, and video games.
- Keep your phone off for the first (and last) few hours of the day.
- Remove all sugary and sweet foods from your diet for a week.
- Avoid caffeine first thing in the morning.
- Avoid or limit alcohol consumption for a full week.
- Abstain from all sexual activities for a couple of weeks.
Engage in activities that promote physical health and digital well-being, such as getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, and getting enough sleep. These activities reduce stress, improve mood, and support overall physical and mental health—all of which lead to increased productivity and better focus.
As you reset your brain’s dopamine release levels, you’ll find it easier to accomplish what you need or truly want to. You’ll begin to actually enjoy activities that might have seemed boring to you because you no longer need that heavy dose of dopamine to get started.
The point of a dopamine detox is simply this: be aware of how your brain works, and make the neurobiology work for you, not against you.
A New Year, a new approach
Quick fixes don’t guarantee success. When we’re looking for long-term ways to increase productivity, find better focus, and create higher-quality work, the process is never as easy as flipping a switch. (We wish!)
That’s why a dopamine detox is not the final answer to optimal productivity, even if depriving yourself of addictive activities may seem to work for a few weeks.
Even digital detoxes don’t work over the long term. Taking a break from distractions, minimizing our time on the internet, and reducing time spent with unhealthy things that feed our pleasure receptors can help reduce stress, improve concentration, build better relationships with people we love, and improve our sleep.
But there’s no guarantee that those breaks will change anything in the long term.
It’s our daily and weekly habits that help us stay in a healthy relationship with dopamine. It’s the boundaries you set in place, such as using Freedom to block tempting websites as you’re working, that make any real difference.
That being said, it’s much easier to go from a period of abstinence from a drug to a more moderate usage, than to go from high levels of indulgence and try to cut back to moderation.
This new year, why not join me in making a change for the better? Take a 30-day fast from whatever is your biggest dopamine indulgence (movies for me!) to reset your mind, and begin making new habits for physical and digital wellbeing.
As we relearn to enjoy doing hard things, we’re becoming more mindfully productive. It’s a win-win!