Can I really be happier controlling Dopamine?

Earlier this year – before Covid-19 irreversibly changed our lives, we started investigating a concept we’d heard of out of Silicon Valley, Dopamine Fasting – the idea, as we had be told it, was that we could re-set our minds, our happiness and our productivity using this tool.

Since then, our lives have changed, and so have our behaviours (why did I do so much lock down baking?) We investigate what dopamine fasting really is, how you can try it for yourself, and whether it can help you overcome unhelpful behaviours (put down the cake!).

What is Dopamine Fasting

To understand the concept of dopamine faster, we’ve first got to get a handle on what dopamine is. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (the brains messaging system) responsible for a number of body functions including motor control and memory, but most famous for the part it plays in the reward system in our brains. Dopamine makes us feel good in response to a stimulus. It’s this reason that dopamine is often lurking behind addictive behaviours (smoking has been found to elevate dopamine levels to such a degree that when people quit their brain has to re-learn how to make dopamine)

The populized idea of dopamine fasting being shared across the internet is that by limiting your brains exposure to the feel good chemical in your brain, dopamine, through the avoidance or abstinence of anything that has the potential to spike dopamine (the list is long – think food, sex, social media, alcohol, exercise…) it’s possible to alter your future lived experience. Ciara McCabe, Associate Professor, University of Reading says thatDopamine fasters believe that they can reduce desires and craving for unhealthy and even unwanted behaviours by reducing dopamine.”

Umm…sounds weird, is that how it really works?

Well not quite. Dopamine is an essential component of our everyday functioning. A lack of dopamine is associated with depression and Parkinson’s disease. Even if it was possible to reduce the amount of dopamine through abstaining from a certain activity – you have to question why you would even want to.

Dana Smith in an article from elemental traces the concept back to Cameron Sepah, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco who says “The practice was intended to be an exercise in self-control to break the bad habits that dopamine can help to ingrain, not to be a monastic exercise in deprivation. In a blog post on the topic, Sepah writes, “To be clear, we ARE NOT fasting from dopamine itself, but from impulsive behaviors reinforced by it.”

So what is dopamine fasting really?

Dopamine fasting in its simplest form is a method of addressing addictive or compulsive behaviours that have become dysfunctional. And we all have them. Its about taking control back of your impulses and behaving less like Pavlov’s Dogs. In reality the widespread sharing and misunderstanding of the concept of dopamine fasting seems to be targeting an ability to feel happy with simpler pleasures and a need to begin to address addictive habits that have become far reaching in their effects on our lives – you don’t need investigate too far to find these behaviours in your own life – I mean, exactly how many times have you checked your phone or social media today?

Sepah, in an effort to clear up the confusion over the idea behind dopamine fasting, released a list of what it is not:

  • Reducing dopamine (the focus is on reducing impulsive BEHAVIOR)
  • Avoiding all stimulation (focuses only on specific behaviors that are problematic for you)
  • Not talking/socializing/exercising (actually encourages values-aligned health behaviors)
  • Rebranding meditation/asceticism/praying (doesn’t involve meditating or not working)
  • Vacation (people treat vacations as times to indulge even more in bad habits)
  • A “tech bro” or Silicon Valley-only trend (it’s done by both genders all over the world)

Dopamine Fasting finds its genesis in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), the idea being that we can get relief from compulsive behaviours that are causing us unhappiness, or have become dysfunctional, by using a structured abstinence approach. 

So can you be happier controlling Dopamine? 

Yes and no. Our experience in using the tools described above did result it feeling happier and more in control. Largely down to having identified that what we were really trying to control was behaviours that felt dysfunctional and therefore frustrating and 'un-happy' making.

The tools we found here, proved useful for re-framing our experience - so from that perspective yes. Did we starve ourselves of any enjoyment to achieve it - absolutely not. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is surely that we should be enjoying everything this life allows....as long as we don't enter the territory of it feeling unhealthy, unhelpful, 'dysfunctional'. 

Ok – I want to give Dopamine Fasting a go, how do I do that?

Dr Sepath suggests the following approach to dopamine fasting based on CBT stimulus control and exposure and response prevention.

1) Put the stimulus (like your phone) away or make it harder to access.

2) Engage in an alternative activity that is incompatible with the stimulus (it’s hard to do sports and stress eat at the same time)

3) Use website-blocking software or social accountability to prevent yourself from cheating.

We can also naturally expose ourselves to the internal stimuli (negative emotions), without engaging in the conditioned response (grabbing for our phone);

1) Notice when the impulses arise, and what thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing in that moment.

2) Practice “urge surfing”: watch the desire to engage in the conditioned response come and go without giving into it.

3) Repeatedly returning to whatever you are doing on instead, with a spirit of non-judgement.

If you would like to find out more about Dopamine Fasting, we recommend this article

https://medium.com/swlh/dopamine-fasting-2-0-the-hot-silicon-valley-trend-7c4dc3ba2213

For additional support in addressing addiction issues we recommend checking out https://www.onecommune.com/recovery-with-russell-brand

For more severe addiction issues, please consult with a medical practitioner.

 

References used for this article:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3870776/

https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/how-heroin-used

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-dopamine-smoking/brain-chemical-dopamine-bounces-back-after-quitting-smoking-idUSKCN10L2LQ

https://elemental.medium.com/could-dopamine-fasting-be-the-solution-to-our-overstimulated-lives-e77a7bce3833

https://medium.com/swlh/dopamine-fasting-2-0-the-hot-silicon-valley-trend-7c4dc3ba2213