My mind has not been a fun place to live in lately. It felt like I spent more time self-sabotaging than I did actually living and building the life I wanted. I was not okay, so I decided to try a dopamine detox.
I am intoxicated by moments. I want to squeeze every last drop of pleasure out of experiences and I create moments for that reason. I get to see how it can be a superpower when harnessed instead of being a sucker to hedonism.
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The Hedonic Treadmill
Since I’ve been embracing this side of myself, naturally my RAS (the reticular activating system, which is a network of neurons located in the brain stem that mediate behaviour) has been seeking out more information around this.
Thanks to the algorithm, one thing lead to another and I found myself listening to a podcast where the host mentioned that he identified with an archetype like mine. And because he did, he often found himself struggling to “life” because he was so consumed with habits or behaviours that gave him his next hit of dopamine.
I felt personally victimised. There’s nothing worse than realising that you are probably the source of all your problems. Maybe my brain wasn’t broken. Maybe my monkey brain had forgotten how good it felt to do things that are good for me because we have so much access to quick hits in the form of social media scrolling, binge-watching Netflix and things like sugar, drugs, sex and alcohol.
Question Avoidant Behaviours
When you avoid things you used to love that are good for you, it might be a good time to ask yourself why.
I was avoiding studying, which is something I love. I was dancing, exercising and creating less. I had become this weird consumption queen over the past few weeks (maybe even months). I was rarely alone with my own thoughts.
Logically, my lizard brain wondered: “why spend 20 minutes meditating to give me a hit of dopamine. Especially when I can just lie to myself and say I’ll only scroll for 20 minutes and get tons of instant gratification”.
Yet, almost every time I’d get hooked. I’d come back into my conscious brain and “wake up” 2 hours later, so drunk on consumption that I’ll spend the rest of the day seeking other quick hits to keep that level up.
Taste Buds and Dopamine Receptors
When I first went vegan almost nine years ago, everything tasted kind of bland for the first week or so. I decided to go from ultra-processed foods packed with sugar, fat and salt to raw fruits and veggies, and later to cooked foods.
That first week I wondered how anyone found this stuff satiating enough, but I stuck with it. The Monday morning of week two blew my mind. I had not had an ounce of salt all that previous week and I had unintentionally skipped dinner so I was extra hungry and I bit into a raw mango and experienced my first ever foodgasm.
I had never tasted anything so good and to this day mango remains my favourite fruit because of this experience and the meaning it holds.
The fruit didn’t change it’s sweetness and taste, I had changed. While researching dopamine, I realised I could repeat this experience and realise how enjoyable all the things I love and are good for me really are.
The Dopamine Detox Solution
The evening I heard this podcast, I used my ADHD hyper-focus superpower and began experimenting with it. I got home that evening and, where I would usually flop onto the couch and scroll, I found myself wondering: “what do I do when I’m not scrolling?”.
I have tons of work to catch up on, tons to create, but I’m going to bed in an hour and I don’t want to stimulate my brain. So I took a bath. The first one since moving into this house. I was alone with my thoughts and it was a comforting albeit terrifying place to be.
Dopamine Detox Day 1
On day one, I decided what I needed a break from was consumption. I can create on social media but I cannot consume. And man is that hard. My fingers are so hardwired that I could find Instagram on my phone with my eyes closed.
I found myself swiping to open the app multiple times that day. That Friday was the most productive creation day I’ve had in months. I had suffered a full-on meltdown on Thursday, and because I already had it in my mind to do this detox, I tried calling a friend instead of scrolling or binging.
It helped. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt better after a meltdown instead of just feeling distracted from it. I felt hopeful. Fast forward to Friday and I had not had a meltdown, but I realised that I had triggers coming.
I quickly realised how reliant I’d become on my dopamine hits. I saw myself stepping head first into one of my most triggering environments and was just flooded with anxiety. I had curated a step-by-step system for these moments, but it involved using on of my dopamine drugs.
As it turns out, the anticipation for the trigger can be far worse than the trigger itself. I survived and even enjoyed the triggering environment.
Dopamine Detox Day 2
I woke up with less dread than I usually do. And because I didn’t reach for my phone, I had time to notice that state of mind. I started watering plants and asked myself what I didn’t feel like doing but would be glad I did. Exercise.
“I’ll delete some emails and check some messages first” I thought. “That’s not scrolling at least!” 10 minutes turned into almost 40 and made me late for my exercise class.
In a rushed tizz on my way to the gym with no music and no podcast on in the car, I had time to realise that my pleasure-seeking, dopamine-addicted lizard brain might be the source of a lot of my issues.
We all have that brain running in full force, but we should not let it drive our executive functioning brain like I had.
Work and Reward
After a gruelling workout I was flooded with those feel-good hormones and suddenly realised: “Ah, when I work for my dopamine, I get it in healthy regulated amounts”.
I realised that the problem was that I’d been lying to myself by thinking that I’ll just get a hit of dopamine and then work. After all, what kind of logic states that reward before work will spark motivation to work? None!
Today, I remembered that motivation only comes from consistent effort. It comes from the previous day’s memory of how good it felt to get that thing done well. I found myself thinking: “Man, I forgot how fun it is to learn.”
The Dreaded Saturday Night
I was seconds away from giving up. What kind of Saturday night is spent without dopamine? A healthy and productive one where you cook soup, enjoy a healthy smoothie bowl and get to bed at 21:30, apparently.
I swear, if I didn’t have it in my head to write this article and record a YouTube video about this, I would have caved.
But another strange result of this has been remembering how determined and accountable I naturally am when I’m not doped up on dopamine. So I am very proud to say I did not cave and the dopamine detox continued.
Dopamine Detox Day 3
I woke up at about 05:30, watered the garden, went for a walk, did some yoga and some washing before sitting down to write this.
We have load-shedding for the next 4 hours and I’m not even worried about it. I get to study, create some content, and plan my week, and all of that feels like things I actually want to do. I also decided I need to incorporate these detoxes regularly because of how clearly I’m thinking this morning.
And it also gave me a much-needed break from comparison culture.
I love how a break from comparison culture has already made my own reality a little brighter. I don’t know if we were ever supposed to know about the business of so many other people.
I realise the irony of this statement coming from an influencer who shares her daily life on Instagram, but you’ll also notice that over the three days of my dopamine detox, I’ve shared the reality too.
As I wasn’t monitoring the responses and seeing everyone else’s perfectly curated lives, I felt free to post the story of the less flattering angles during a workout. I shared pics of my food as I naturally used to, because I hadn’t seen anyone else’s meal, so I had nothing to compare it to. I spoke live on a story and only realised afterwards that I hadn’t done that in at least a month. It was easy because I hadn’t seen someone else that morning and compared silly, unimportant things like the shape of my face to theirs.
Allow Yourself One But Not All At Once
I think a good guideline is going forward will be allowing myself one of my dopamine triggers without stacking them. So, instead of binge watching Netflix with a bottle of wine (not something I’ve ever personally done, but this was a common one on my polls), I would enjoy either some wine or the Netflix.
It seems like stacking dopamine triggers is a problem on it’s own – it’s like a double hit that’s extra hard to recover from. It also seems to make a lot of us lose our minds and do crazy things like:
- Drink a whole bottle of wine by ourselves on a Sunday night
- Eat an entire chocolate cake
- Binge-watch an entire series until 3am
- Doom scroll your entire day away
I didn’t make this stuff up and I’m not here to say what is right and wrong — these are the things my followers said they regretted.
But you know what we need more of? Mornings where we thank our past selves.
Damn. Don’t you love those? If we want more of those we need to make decisions today that tomorrow us will be thankful for.
Habits to try and build:
- Work for it: Fill your mornings with behaviours that require you to work for your rewards (ie: dopamine).
- Use and don’t be used: Reward yourself after hard things with dopamine triggers. Use your dopamine to your advantage by doing the work or hard thing and promising your monkey mind a little hit later in the day as a thank you.
- Don’t get drunk on dopamine: Tipsy is okay, but as soon as we start stacking those dopamine behaviours, we seem to lose our “adult” brain.
- Detox: Make a habit of detoxing from dopamine. Have screen-free date nights. Have a bi-weekly Sunday date with yourself without all your dopamine triggers. You can always set a bed time alarm and reward yourself for your productive day or week then.
- Restructure your days: I like Jim Kwik’s alliteration and set up:
- Create: Earlier part of your day when your energy is high.
- Consume: Study, podcasts, social media when your energy is lower.
- Clear: Planning your next day, finishing off tasks that need to be done the day before.
- Connect: This is one to try and find in each of the other 3 C’s.
Worth The Hype?
I can tell you right now that there is not enough hype around this. I know giving up something you love is hard, but it’s just three days. Heck, do it for one day, but wake up and realise you’re becoming a product of the system.
You’re spending most of your time consuming, numbing or escaping, and you’re going to blink and wonder where your life has gone.
Yes, You Need This Too
If you cannot imagine going three days without your nightly glass(es) of wine, then you are exactly who needs this most. Of course it’s terrifying seeing what you’ve been running from for years. But if you don’t see it and face it, you might just miss the very lesson that you’re on this earth to learn.
You might miss your soul’s mission. Will a 3-day dopamine detox help you with that. No. That’s a life-long journey, but it’s a good place to start getting your outside of the passenger seat of your life.
Most won’t but some will: either way I’m here for you and proud of you.
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.