I Tried a ‘Dopamine Detox’: Here’s What I Discovered
You know that feeling you get when you check everything off your to-do list, or when you finish an intense workout that you initially dreaded? No? Me either. What about that feeling you get after swiping your credit card for a new shirt you definitely don’t need, or when you lie in bed to scroll on social media after a long day? Yeah, you know that feeling — that’s dopamine being released in your brain, sending a warm, fuzzy feeling through your body and making you want to feel it again.
Our pleasure response is a complex process, but dopamine is a neurotransmitter that tells your brain to repeat a behavior because it feels good. It could be exercising, reading, winning a lottery ticket, sex or eating your favorite guilty pleasure food (mine are those Little Debbie snacks that look like they weren’t made for human consumption). Whatever it may be, dopamine is part of what makes you remember those euphoric feelings so you can repeat the pleasurable behavior. Our brain naturally seeks out feelings of enjoyment and, most of the time, we listen to it. If an activity makes us feel good, we’re going to try to do it again for that same feeling.. No harm, no foul … right?
The problem is nothing is ever enough. We, as humans, crave more and more. When one behavior doesn’t make us feel as good as it did in the beginning, we turn to something else that will. Or we can become dependent on it to give us the same feeling. Our cell phones are one of the biggest examples. Anytime we feel an inkling of boredom or maybe even sadness, we tend to pick up the phone and scroll the feeling away. While there’s nothing wrong with using social media to cure temporary boredom, it can become an issue if we start to rely on it or become addicted to these behaviors for that teensy surge of pleasure.
This craving isn’t something we typically think about when performing a certain behavior, like seeking a form of entertainment in the lulls of our everyday routine. I first noticed my desire for dopamine when I was scrolling on Instagram, snack in hand, television blaring in the background and I was still bored. I thought, “This can’t be healthy.” So, I got up and went on a walk. Naturally, I grabbed my headphones to listen to music or a podcast while strolling the neighborhood and another thought dawned on me, one that I couldn’t shake: Why am I so afraid of being alone with my thoughts? In that moment, I realized just how often I had been relying on distractions and entertainment to avoid boredom or worse … original thinking.
This idea first came to me after listening to a podcast by Emma Chamberlain called “Anything Goes,” where she tried a “dopamine detox” for a week. She cut off all forms of entertainment or toxic behaviors — social media, television, music, podcasts, alcohol, fast food — anything that provided those temporary hits of gratification to try and bring balance back into her life.
The term “dopamine detox” is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy developed by Dr. Cameron Sepah, a California psychiatrist, that helps people manage addictive behaviors. The goal of a dopamine detox isn’t meant to deprive the brain of dopamine in hopes of resetting its release levels (because it won’t). Instead, Sepah’s technique focuses on stimulus control, a process that involves restricting access to certain stimuli and engaging in different, healthier behaviors. Throughout this “detox,” users can begin to identify what triggers their desire to turn to unhelpful behaviors and address those head-on.
So, I tried it.
For one week I tried my absolute hardest to cut out all possible forms of entertainment and desirable behaviors in hopes of identifying what makes me seek them out.
Although my experience was not nearly as strict as some dopamine detoxes are — given I’m only human and this was more so a trial run — my rules were as follows: no social media unless it was for work; no watching movies or TV shows; no listening to music or podcasts; no eating fast food, drinking alcohol or coffee; and no playing “The New York Times” crossword puzzle (it’s become a part of my everyday routine). However, I did allow myself to read books because, like I said, I’m only human and reading is the least toxic and least-performed activity I turn to for entertainment.
What I learned mostly aligned with what I expected going into it — that I would turn to my phone or television when I felt bored or overwhelmed. What I didn’t expect to learn was just how often I would try to escape these feelings or how overwhelming they could become. I have always felt there weren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done, but that one week felt like there were too many hours in a day, and I just wanted to escape for a few of them in the dark depths of TikTok or my favorite comfort show, “New Girl.”
The first days were rough. I tried to stay occupied by working, doing homework and taking my dog Cleo for a walk. But after I finished all my assignments for the rest of the semester, worked until I couldn’t and had to carry Cleo home on our fifth walk of the day, I was left alone. Granted, those activities took up most of the day, but I still found myself feeling like something was missing. I’m aware how melodramatic and Gen Z of me that sounds, but throughout the day I kept looking for something to make me feel anything. While I worked on articles and assignments, I wanted to put on a playlist or a podcast. Worse, I wanted to scroll through social media more and more.
I quickly realized that it wasn’t necessarily one thought or trigger that made me want to turn to my phone but rather an abundance of them. When I had a lull in the day and nothing needed my immediate attention, I became sort of overwhelmed with the number of thoughts running through my head. What are my friends doing? Are they mad at me? Are my parents proud of me? Did I unplug my hair straightener? How will I make next month’s rent? Why did I say that one stupid thing five years ago? What am I going to have for dinner? Will I ever amount to anything? It never stopped. All I wanted was to put something on a screen to distract my brain from continuing to spiral.
But I didn’t. I sat with the thoughts or walked with them around the neighborhood. I went to the gym (with no headphones, mind you) and did squats until the burning sensation clouded my mind with stars from low oxygen. I called my friends and family to catch up. I read books, stared at the ceiling and cooked dinner with my roommate each night. I felt natural dopamine during these activities that left me feeling satisfied and less like I was craving more. I painted, something I haven’t done since high school. They were god-awful, don’t get me wrong, but it felt good creating something from my own imagination. Toward the end of the week, I felt inspired to write my own stories and do things for enjoyment, not a deadline. I learned I could give my brain the time and patience to explore parts of itself that I thought might have been gone forever. I felt new feelings, some scary, some inspiring and some very delusional.
One after another, as the feelings came and went, I realized my thoughts couldn’t kill me, and they shouldn’t be something to run away from. Yes, they can become hard to listen to at times, but they are important, nonetheless. When I first noticed that one of my dopamine craving triggers was anxiety or feeling overwhelmed, I decided to focus on listening to my thoughts and re-routing them somewhere more positive. It took a few sleepless nights at first, allowing my brain to spiral into oblivion or sleep, but throughout the week, I made a repeated, conscious decision to let it happen. I turned to journaling and writing down the thoughts I was most afraid of confronting, and it was a hard thing to do. Once I stopped suppressing these bad thoughts, I was met with a sense of freedom — they no longer had a hold on me. I would process one thought or emotion, and often, I ended up at the same conclusion: That’s just silly. For example, when I felt fear for what the future holds (a very common feeling, it turns out), I began to embrace the fact that I have no idea what’s going to happen. But there are two ways that feeling can end: fear or freedom. I could either choose to distract myself and let the fear manifest, or I could actively choose to let go of fearing the unknown. After all, there’s no logical reason to worry about something that hasn’t happened yet, and it won’t help stop something that hasn’t already happened. That doesn’t mean you stop worrying about it, but it helps redirect that worry.
I wish I could say that by the end of the week I threw my phone away and became someone unrecognizable, but that wasn’t the case, nor was it even the point. Going into the dopamine detox, I wanted to understand what triggered my desire for distractions and potentially lessen that dependency. Coming out of it, I took away an even more enlightening perspective: You have to feel the scary feelings because they’re not going anywhere. The quicker you can learn how to be comfortable with uncomfortable thoughts, the quicker you can learn how to address them. When I got back on social media, it initially didn’t give me the same feeling as it did before. It felt silly, and almost invasive, to scroll through the lives of other people to try and forget about my own. However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss or care anymore about scrolling through social media here and there or watching TV because I did. I still partake in it, but now, I’m more aware of when I’m trying to escape a certain feeling with entertainment and when I just want to be entertained for a little … because it’s OK to want to be entertained for a little. It’s OK to want to give your brain a break and get lost in a movie or indulge in social media. But it’s not OK to use it as a routine coping mechanism or to avoid confronting our fears, insecurities and responsibilities. As beautiful as our minds are, they also know how to trick us into thinking we’re not good enough. It’s not our brain’s fault though; we’re self-sabotaging creatures with an innate inability to give ourselves the same love we give others. But by spending more time getting to know yourself and less time with the fantasies trapped in your screen, you can learn how to redirect love back to yourself. By letting yourself feel scared and insecure, you can learn how to get through to the other side — the side of optimism and hope.
This experience brought beautiful and terrifying thoughts to the forefront of my mind, but I learned to give myself the space to feel them. Practicing mindfulness is a hard habit to pick up, but it helps you recognize when it’s necessary to indulge or when you should just go for a walk. The former is so much easier than the latter but the consequences of each can be dire, at least for me. If you feel the need to “detox” from dopamine, or can relate to my experience, I implore you try it— you never know what you might learn.