Do You Need a Digital Detox? Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Dopamine Fasting

Have you ever felt like turning your phone off and simply wallowing in your own silence? It is quite rare to find a moment of quiet in a world absorbed by screens and constant noise, a fact that has turned many celebrities to nature retreats and infamous social media breaks.

The step up from this? Silicon Valley executives’ so-called life hack, “Dopamine fasting”. The trend was created by psychiatrist Dr Cameron Sepah, who based the fast on a cognitive behavioural therapy called ‘stimulus control’. Dopamine, or the mislabelled “pleasure chemical” is a neurotransmitter that triggers feelings of reward and motivation. Instead of depending on constant notifications, tings and rings, Dopamine fasting puts these short-lived, addictive stimuli on pause for a day.

According to licensed professional counsellor Marissa Moore, MA, LPC, the goal of dopamine fasting is to decrease overstimulation of the brain’s dopamine system. In turn, wriggling your brain out of a dopamine Desensitization or numbness. The aim of this is to find the value in everyday activities and recentre our motivation.

How Does It Work?

Untitled-design-1-1024x576.png

You cannot eat, drink anything except water, watch TV, use the internet or your phone, listen to music or the radio have sex or masturbate. You should keep speaking to the minimum and are encouraged to meditate, read and walk in nature.

Doesn’t sound great, does it? The truth is dopamine fasting is not intended to be a looking-at-your-white-ceiling-for-hours kind of day. It’s a way of rebalancing your mind. Dr Sepah recommends beginning the fast in a minimally disruptive way, to slowly ease into it. For example, we could practice dopamine fasting for an hour before bed or a couple of hours at the weekend.

Does Dopamine Really have Anything to do with it?

Dr Joshua Berke, professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco asserts that “This is a fad, not a controlled study.” However “it certainly sounds plausible that taking a break from obsessively checking your social media account and partying every night is good for you. [It’s] just unlikely to have much to do with dopamine per se.” Berke continues, stating that he is “not aware of any evidence at all”.

Gregory Scott Brown, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and mental health writer, states, “In theory, yes it does.” He continues, “because many stimulating activities are thought to work through dopamine pathways in the brain.”

Could Dopamine Fasting Be for You?

Untitled-design-2-1024x576.png

“Dopamine fasting or detox may be beneficial for individuals who are excessively reliant on instant gratification activities and feel a lack of motivation in their lives,” states Moore. “It might help those struggling with productivity, focus, or attention issues stemming from excessive use of technology or other stimulating activities.”

Unfortunately, many misunderstand the concept of Dopamine fasting. Instead, some view it as short-term deprivation to reach a high. In fact, a dopamine fast is not comparable to an alcohol “tolerance break” at all. Dopamine fasting, when following its original intent, is a way of unplugging from overstimulation and technology.

Dr Sepah explains, “Given the always-on, high-stress nature of their jobs, they are prone to addictive behaviours to suppress stress and negative emotions.” Taking a break from social media and technology could put their careers on trial for many. Thus, Dr Sepah’s so-called ‘dopamine fast’ is a short-term rebalancing act to which his patients have reported increases in mood, productivity, focus and healthy habits.

For medical professionals like Dr Brown, the question of prescribing the fast is still uncertain, stating that “we need more scientific evidence about dopamine fasting before medical doctors like myself can make recommendations about it.”

pexels-vanessa-garcia-6324462-1-1-1024x682.jpg
Credit: Vanessa Garcia/Pexels

Although Dopamine Fasting is viewed as a modern-day invention, in reality, it has been around for centuries. From the Jewish Sabbath to the Catholic Lord’s Day, a day of rest has always been viewed as essential for worship and relaxation.

However, ideas of ‘rebalancing’ and ‘recharging’ the mind are less than new. Dan Lyons, screenwriter for HBO series Silicon Valley says, “There is this idea of rebranding things. Last year it was microdosing: this whole idea that it’s really productive. It’s like: ‘I’ve heard of that: you took one hit of weed and got high but not so high you couldn’t work’. People in the 1960s were talking about doing this to improve their minds.”

James Sinka, aged 24, who regularly participates in the dopamine fast, believes it to be a modernised Vipassana meditation. He states that many criticise the fast, but “Every day we’re overcrowded, overstimulated, drowning in the noise of these things”.

“Now,” he continues, “we’re able to take a step back, reflect and re-engage in a way we want to, not in a way we’ve been trained.” Although the fast is falsely connected with dopamine, there is no denying the benefits of distancing ourselves from technology to process the world around us.

Dr Brown expresses, “I try not to get overly hyped about new trends and wait for research to support the trend. However, if dopamine fasting means living a more balanced life- like limiting excessive drinking for example, then it may be an avenue for improved physical and mental health.“

We are all too often immersed in a superficial world that craves constant communication. Although a 24-hour fast is not necessarily the answer, taking the time to simply be, observe and breathe in the natural world, can certainly help feelings of stress and overload.

Written by

  • Anaïs Wyder Pivaral

    Anaïs Wyder Pivaral is a Swiss-Guatemalan English Literature graduate from the University of York. With a passion for all things wellness and culture, she seeks to write stories that bring new dimensions and perspectives into the wellness, health and beauty industries.

More Articles