Let’s talk about Dopamine Fasting

I first heard the phrase “dopamine fasting” in mid-late 2021, coming out of several months of lockdown and restrictions in Sydney.

My roommate and I were expressing how sorry we felt for teenagers who were meant to be enjoying the last two years of high-school with special senior jumpers, free periods, dress-up days, scavenger hunts, schoolies, formals, and the kind of friendship you form with your teachers once they know they won’t have to put up with you much longer.

“Apparently kids and teenagers in Victoria are being encouraged to do dopamine fasting,” she mentioned. “As if spending years of your childhood locked inside during a pandemic isn’t enough, now you’re meant to stay off social media and your phone too.”

I remember being equal parts intrigued and annoyed – can’t we just be allowed our little piece of escapism and novelty?

We’re told that we should be managing our stress, journalling, meditating, supplementing, tracking our sleep, practicing mindfulness, and staying grateful.
We’re told to watch what we eat – but not diet.
Move our bodies – but not overexercise.
Be informed – but don’t doomscroll.
Stay connected – but keep screen time low.

I don’t know if this is a new occurrence or not, but it feels like we’re constantly told that any feelings of distress or unpleasantness are a personal failure because we haven’t taken enough responsibility for our wellbeing.

The idea of dopamine fasting is interesting because it exists at the intersection of popular wellness fads, and also encourages the individual to take extreme accountability for the way their brain is biologically wired to seek rewards.

Dopamine is a neurostransmitter that is involved in our reward, learning, motivation, and pleasure responses.

You receive dopamine from innocent activities like completing a task, hugging a loved one, going for a walk or swim in the fresh air.

It’s how your body reinforces positive activities that it would like you to do again.

But, we also that we get a hit of dopamine from things like gambling, thrill seeking, drug use, and the notifications, likes, and beeps of social media.

The theory is, that you abstain from any activity that gives you dopamine in order to circuit-break any dependence on dopamine-spiking activities. People are hoping that with a short dopamine fast, they can reset their reward and pleasure centres so they’re not as dependent on their crutch of choice.

Harvard Health Publishing actually penned a brilliant piece on this, and explained the context of the original research paper the idea was taken from, and how it’s been misappropriated by bio-hackers and wellness warriors.

They explain that the author of the research only meant for this to be implemented in minimally invasive ways, for an hour or two at the end of a busy day or maybe even one weekend.

This is remarkably similar to common mindfulness principles like “going off the grid”, “spending time with yourself” or “staying off screens before bed” or “unplug and recharge every now and then.” It’s sound advice, that encourages a bit of slowing down without much disruption to your life.

However, that’s become a bit lost in translation when it comes to dopamine fasting.

For days on end, people are avoiding:

  • Phones, computers, internet
  • Music, TV and movies
  • Social media, texting
  • Shopping
  • Certain foods and drink (some opting to abstain from any food and drink entirely)
  • Sex, pornography, and masturbation
  • Exercise
  • Even eye contact

There’s even a 41, 000 member strong Reddit community devoted to Dopamine Fasting and Detoxing, who regularly share advice, potential dopamine-inducing activities to give up, and forego dopamine every Sunday (I’m assuming the sub is fairly quiet while that’s happening).

Psychologist Cameron Sepah wrote a highly-circulated LinkedIn post that is credited with popularising Dopamine Fasting 2.0, and expressed his concerns about the misunderstanding of dopamine fasting as a wellness hack.

He said that it can be a useful tool for controlling addictive behaviours like emotional eating, gambling addiction, excessive internet usage, and thrill-seeking. It’s a means of reducing dependency on behaviours and compulsions that have become coping mechanisms for numbing pain and unhappiness in our lives.

And honestly, that sounds completely reasonable.

Someone dealing with a gaming addiction or binge eating is engaging in these behaviours to self-soothe, and may very well find it a good idea to engage in a bit of a dopamine detox to reset and bring themselves back to baseline.

But what is a much less useful application of dopamine fasting, is claiming it’s a silver-bullet fix for the way in which you interact with the pleasures of the world.

It’s never as black or white as “you indulged in a bit of chocolate on a bad day, therefore you’re sugar addicted and should abstain from all dopamine.”

And it’s certainly not as simple as “teens and children are depressed about the unexpected global pandemic that has killed millions across the world, defined their youth thus far, and robbed them of the milestones they thought they were going to celebrate – so how dare they cheer themselves up with TikTok.”

Ultimately, it’s a bit sad when valid experiences of unhappiness and efforts to self-soothe are diagnosed as dopamine-dependency and inexpertly recommended complete pleasure abstinence in order for moral redemption.

If you find it an interesting challenge for yourself, or you’re curious about the idea, or it has genuinely helped you put a stop in a cycle of compulsive, addictive, and unhealthy behaviour – then absolutely more power to you. Whatever works – and props for completing something that sounds really challenging and disciplined.

But I don’t think we need to keep re-hashing the narrative that to feel upset and to seek reassurance and simple comfort is a failure of individual resilience.

Not everything needs to be difficult to be worthwhile.

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