A behavioral brain trick called “dopamine fasting” has been around for a while now - the idea of restricting most of your pleasurable daily activities — from social media, to watching videos, gaming, or even eating — you can “reset” your brain. The idea also plays into people’s simplistic ideas about how the brain works.
But does it work? TLDR: No, not in my opinion. It is still focused on using willpower to overcome primal drives. Instead let’s add inspiration and tiny habits into the mix and the result - take a MAD habit holiday instead! This blog is inspired by session 2 of my course: Mindfulness and Emotional Resilience. Here is a summary of some of that session:
Why Dopamine Detox / Fasting doesn't work
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that signals anticipation of pleasure. Ir helps you be motivated to get things done and to move. Too much of it and you over-excite the neurons with the resulting pleasure chemicals (EOPs) and then you are ;’over-stimulated’ which is a state where you struggle to focus on the present moment and enjoy things. You therefore feel the urge to do more, consume more etc. It was once thought to be behind addiction, which is now no longer our understanding. However we do know the balance of serotonin and dopamine plays a part and I wrote about that here. But will starving ourselves of dopamine hits (short-term pleasures) help us to balance them? Well, no - because addiction is more about ‘meaning’.
Addiction has been proven by experiments with rats to be more complex, and more about cultural and physical environment than motivation chemicals.. Because we are creatures of habit and the science of habit is more about psychology than biology. I used to think addiction is all biological, thanks to ideas like this first video, but reading books by Harrari and Brandt helped me see it is much more about the way we think - the meaning in our lives.
How you think about it matters
OK, but most of our normal habits are not toxic addictions, they are simply a little ‘reactive’ and therefore overbalanced. Problem is we often beat ourselves up about them, as if they are terrible. This makes the cravings for relief stronger! If you finally do decide to stop and use the ‘fasting’ or ‘detox’ methods then you will probably add what I call ‘deprivation stress to the underlying feelings of craving. you are attempting to use willpower and slave driving rather than going with the flow of enjoyment. Positive, empowered thinking will not add stress, it will add enjoyment! I have two suggestions:
The strongest is the one you feed
A neat visual perspective on that is I imagine dopamine as a wee doggie inside me. It is craving and barking and yapping. If I feed it, then it gets stronger. I choose to see the yapping as a sign that it wants feeding. When I say no, it gets weaker and my pussycat of power gets stronger instead! So craving is good! This was inspired by the book ‘The Easy Way to Quit Sugar’.
MAD habits - the core reason we form reactive habits
The core reason, in my opinion, that we have reactive habits is because we have evolved three basic directions to threat detection (stress): Fight, Flight, Freeze. Millions of years of evolution are not overcome by a weekend off your smartphone. The next time you feel lonely or rejected you’ll be back on social media because the powerful autonomic nervous system has evolved to do that. The modern world is full of temptations that play on the modern versions of FFF:
Accept your reactions and notice them in a SANE way
Instead of fighting our reactions we are better served to notice and accept them. That doesn’t mean just give in and do nothing, it means use SANE strategies to accomplish this:
MAD habit holiday
One way you can do this is to choose a short period of time to take off one habit and replace it with a pleasurable, nourishing one. Treat it as a holiday, not a discipline camp. That way you won’t add more stress to the whole thing. See the little cravings inside as a yapping dopamine dog, which you can soothe by acknowledging and thanking. This is one of my tools...
During this time it is quite likely you’ll trip up and fall into the same old traps. No worries, remember it’s all part of the learning process. Every FAIL is a Fresh Attempt In Learning. The real practice is to forgive by laughing and learning! Clever little adorable Dopamine Doggie and Mindless Monkey! The learning aspect comes primarily for preparation. Here is a quick way to prepare to remember about the TRAPs:
My old compulsion and my new chosen habit
I’ve already used these methods to eliminate compulsions towards news, sugar and facebook (over the past two years) and now I’m working on Pornography (and similar visual stimulus of women) which I’m replacing with reading and guitar playing. As an example here are my detailed answers to questions 3 and 4
Affects: (major positives in red, negatives in green)
Pleasure: What is pleasurable, really?
I know, from my reading of ‘The Easy Way to Quit Sugar’ that I can affect pleasure by recognising
The ugliness of porn: Porn is pleasurable for about 10 minutes, whilst I ogle and orgasm. It is ugly for longer - Fake people, in makeup, covering up traumas, infiltrating my mind with craving and being a slave to people who make the movies (who I imagine as chubby, smoking, greedy people).
The beauty of reading and guitar: Sometimes I think of reading as boring and guitar as hard work, but them I think of inspiring books like ‘Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman’ and ‘The Bosy Keeps Score’ and remember the feeling of inspiration. I also remember the times I learned guitar in my 20’s and loved it, and playing for people in festivals. Inspiring people who read I think of include The Beatles, JK Rowling, Carl Sagan, Nick Drake…
One more secret weapon: Tripping the TRAPs with a Clap!
A friend of mine introduced one final weapon in fighting the MAD habits. A pattern interrupt you know well: Clapping your hands! Here’s how it works
With that in mind and taking as many good feelings into this time off. I’m giving myself 2 months off. Ahh the luxury. I suggest always thinking in this ‘liberating’ way, so you don’t add ‘deprivation stress’ to the feelings of craving already in your body. Remember they are just a little yapping dog of dopamine.
I like to tell everyone I’m on holiday and celebrate it daily. I can do it so much better if I holiday with another person. We can call this an ‘accountability buddy’. We encourage and celebrate daily. If we get an urge? Tell them. Call each other ‘lucky swine!’ for the fact they have painful cravings. Ha! That’s because the pain is a good sign - a sign of growth and opportunities for more growth if framed correctly.
So go forth, holiday well and after your holiday you can choose, naturally, without any ‘shoulds’ or willpower, your balance of habits.
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Neil Morbey is a meditation teacher, group facilitator and inspiration guide for Positively-Mindful.com