What is a Dopamine Detox?
Dopamine detox is the act of avoiding engaging your brain in activities that are detrimental to your health, ie checking your phone late at night or having excess screentime.
As we’ve collectively experienced the trauma of the crisis that is 2020, all of us have needed extra help to cope.
Normal people, i.e. non-addicts, have the luxury of drinking a bit more in the evening, sparking a joint earlier in the day, and also the occasional pill to relax or fall asleep.
Addicts do not have that luxury. As nearly every human interaction moved online, and even getting out in nature felt scary, and, at times, forbidden, our screens and overeating feel like all we have.
“I wake up in a panic every morning at 3 am, and scroll Instagram and the news until the birds start chirping,” confessed my friend Alex, a fellow alcoholic.
Sometimes I do that too. I begin to notice that the days I took “off” simultaneously half watching TV, playing Candy Crush, and cruising my socials weren’t making me feel relaxed or recharged at all. It feels like all the bad parts of cocaine. That feeling of the next hit of whatever is going to feel good even though the previous three thousand haven’t.
Entire days pass which starts with a reasonable to-do list and end with me running out of time and steam with not much accomplished other than an increasingly heavy presence on social media and an impressive dent made in the catalog of every streaming service.
Could my problem, and therefore my solution, be the screens?
When I read Amy Dresner’s article about shopping, smoking, and eating, it dawns on me that my brain’s reward system is being hijacked.
Dopamine. That’s what my brain is chasing. With this revelation, it feels less personal and shameful and more like a challenge I can work to overcome. I pivot into solution mode and find a group on Reddit called Dopamine Detoxing.
There are three levels, each increasingly restrictive, so I decide to do all three on Saturdays and report my findings.
The group does it every Sunday, but for me, it feels right to choose Shabbat, my people’s traditional day of rest.
Level one is no screens, no stimulating foods, and no masturbation. I can still have coffee, read books, listen to music, talk to people, exercise, walk, and eat.
I wake up excited. It feels like a relief to not have to moderate my screen time, similar to the relief of no longer having to moderate my drinking. I am just not doing it.
I make a tight schedule for the day and plan to hit every task. Without the phone, my planner is my touchstone.
Here’s what that schedule looks like:
9 – 9:45 Coffee, play with the cat, scoop litter box
9:45 – 10:15 Meditate
10:15 – 10:45 Journal
10:45 – 11 Change sheets, clean up
11 – 12 Walk to bank & grocery store
12 – 12:30 Lunch
12:30 – 1:30 Pool, read
I stay on track, mostly, until after swimming. I don’t count on being hungry by 9:45, or wanting to shower and nap after the pool. Usually, my pool time is brief. I float, read, and hop out to the siren call of my phone. This day isn’t like that. I suddenly remember that swimming is also for exercise. I was on the swim team for most of my school years. As I swim lap after lap, I recall how some of my best thinking happens this way. I plan on working on my book after the pool. Working on my book, or lack thereof is my main motivation for doing this. I get to it after my nap. It takes me all day to get there, which is much better than the previous two weeks in which I kept telling myself I would write ‘later’ and then find the day ending without it having happened. With less instant gratification options available, it is easier to get to the things I truly want to do in a larger picture sense.
Here’s what my afternoon schedule ends up looking like, about an hour behind due to eating and napping and things just generally taking longer than I expect even after all these years on this planet living in this same time construct.
2 – 2:15 Walk dog
2:15 – 4 Shower, nap
4 – 5:30 Write book
After breaking my non-writing streak I feel really good, and throughout the day I notice that I feel more centered in my body, less rushed, and more deeply relaxed than I have been since I went to Costa Rica three years ago.
My focus has shifted from in my phone to in myself and it feels luxurious.
After that, I eat an early dinner. I don’t recall what I ate for lunch or dinner, so I know I did a good job of eating non-stimulating foods.
It was hard to find a definitive answer to what non-stimulating food is, so I went with no processed sugar, no white flour, no cheese, and nothing with a lot of fat. Basically, nothing that feels exciting to think of.
After dinner, it occurs to me that I can walk over to my close friend and AA sponsor’s house who lives less than a mile away. If she is home and unoccupied I can hang out – talking with people is on the list of things I can do at beginner level detox, which is how I was able to run errands earlier. The rules said nothing about driving, but I decide not to drive today as a nod to the little I know of observing Shabbat.
I leash the dog and we set out. As much as I enjoy listening to music or podcasts or books on tape when I walk, which is a normal part of my quarantine routine, I feel more in the world without it, and though I’ve walked this exact route dozens of times, I notice buildings and plants I’ve never seen before.
I get to her house, and not only is she home, but she also has a sober friend over whom I very much like. I stay for almost two hours. She knew of my plan and kindly paused the movie they were watching. We hang out in a very present way. It is such a relief not to have the nagging feeling that I should be checking in on whatever is happening in my phone. It is also a relief not to feel the guilt of not being present while I was checking it.
I walk home, meditate another half hour, then just sit on the couch for a bit, thinking.
I get in bed with a book and fall asleep by ten pm, deeply relaxed.
I learnt a lot from my level one detox last week.
The benefits did, as hoped, bleed into daily life. On Sunday, I was watching the episode of the new Zac Efron show where he visits a self-sustaining intentional community of expats in Costa Rica. A man said, “sometimes the problem is the solution,” and I thought about my writing and my phone. He was talking about human waste and fertilizing crops, but it translates. If my problem is that I get sucked into my phone, draining my time and focus to write (and here you can substitute anything in your life that is your true purpose and is thwarted by excessive screen usage), then I can easily not turn the phone on every morning until I have written the industry daily standard of one thousand words.
I add journaling and meditation to the “before I turn on phone” list so that I can make sure I also do those things every day. It works. I am making my brain work in my favor. I am so motivated to turn that phone on that it becomes motivation to do the other things first.
In the week that includes the detoxes, I write over seven thousand words of essays and two thousand words of articles (this one and the previous) by hand in a notebook. I start turning the phone off by ten pm at night because that helps me relax. Even if I’m still watching television, with the phone off, I actually watch the television.
I sleep better. Once I complete these goals for the day, the rest of the day feels like it truly belongs to me. I feel like I can really enjoy it.
I know the upcoming detox will be more restrictive, which I deal with by not looking at the list of added restrictions until Friday night. I know music will be out, so I listen to the new Taylor Swift while cooking on Friday afternoon. I recall that talking to people is out too, so, no errands. It’s going to be tricky to avoid talking to my neighbors. We’ve all grown friendly while quarantining together.
During the week in between, I find myself more tuned in to the angst that comes from the digital world, often throwing my phone in a drawer when I’m doing something I want to focus on. That is a big result of detox one: I am much more aware of how screens make me feel, and when they are beginning to usurp my time and focus. I start to write designated phone checking times into my daily schedule.
Because I’ve refused to look at the list for level two all week, I am surprised and upset to see two of my favorite things in life—coffee and books—on the No list.
I’ve deluded myself. I didn’t spend as much time reading during level one as I thought I would, but the idea that it isn’t an option is freaking me out. Just like last week, I convince myself that I am going to have to spend Saturday staring at the wall. Friday night I have a friend over for dinner. We originally planned to order in, but I cook instead, leaving two full sinks of dishes to give myself something to do the next day. A spice rack I ordered arrives as well, and I leave that project, too.
The morning comes. I walk the dog, meditate, and eat oatmeal, but I can’t wake up and have a low grade headache. Caffeine. I climb back into bed and sleep until noon. I decide that I hate detoxing off chemicals I’m not trying to quit. It reminds me of the dozens of times I quit drinking or adderall or weed, only to return with a vengeance the next time I relapsed.
I cave and make coffee. I feel a little guilty but also so much better. I don’t time my schedule today, which makes it easier to stick to and allows things to arise naturally.
Here’s what it looks like:
Journal / plan day
Write 500-1000 words, finish essay
Okay, so it looks like I won’t be staring at the wall this time either. I don’t feel nearly as content or spiritual today as last week. I have discounted how great an impact human connection has on my well-being. When I’m back online, I’m going to look up the rules of Shabbat and come up with a plan that works for me. It turns out that I am not that interested in depriving my brain of dopamine in the hopes of resetting it. I just need a day to recharge without screens.
I am somehow busier than on a normal day. I get to all the chores and projects I’ve been putting off, and get a prodigious amount of writing done. I still have a bit of a headache just from attempting to not have caffeine.
Next weekend I will be in Arizona performing all weekend with the last of my antibodies. I have shows at eight and ten on both Friday and Saturday nights, so I won’t be able to do the third level of the detox, also known as the “Time Theorist.”
It will have to wait until the following week, but next week I will find a middle path and spend most of the day Saturday offline. When I do the Time Theorist level, I’ll have to wean myself down off caffeine for a few days prior so I can follow the rules for that level to the best of my ability.
Another day down, it’s time to go to bed. Right before I do, I stare at the walls a bit. I love it. My brain is a safer place to be as a sober for a while person than I’ve been giving it credit for.
After spending nearly 24 hours sitting with myself I can confirm that my old therapist was right—I am exhausting.
It took three weeks after my last fast to carve out this time. After the whole experiment was concluded, I looked up the science. What I found was pertinent to addiction. “The turbulence of dopamine swings related to addiction effectively drowns out signals from all other realms of life,” writes Walter Piper, Neuroscience Researcher at NYU.
Yet, as I continue studying the thoughts on the dopamine detox from people a bit more educated than the 16-year-olds in Minnesota on Reddit, I find that it’s only one part of a strategy to improve focus, motivation, and time management.
It is neither snake oil nor panacea.
Just like we use a cornucopia of strategies to get and stay sober, so must we to connect with ourselves and disconnect from other forms of pleasure-seeking that deplete us.
Spiritual teachers since the beginning of time have advocated the value of sitting with yourself. As addicts, it’s what we run from most.
While clearing our minds will allow us to enjoy pleasures more, it’s about more than dopamine. What matters most is what you do with what you learn. In the week between my first two fasts, I didn’t turn my phone on until I accomplished several tasks that are important to me. And then I backslid, just as it was starting to feel really good.
The third fast was draconian, but it got me back on my bullshit. Like Mark Twain once said, “I’m glad I did it, partly because it was well worth it, but mostly because I shall never ever have to do it again.”
In level three, dubbed the “Time Theorist” by Youtuber Andrew Kirby, there is no reading, writing, exercise, caffeine, music, or food.
I found myself busier than expected in level one and two, mostly out of fear. But at the third level, I had no choice but to surrender to the void.
I woke up as I always do, at seven am, to the terrible opera of my pets announcing their morning needs. This time I went back to sleep after tending them. Waking finally at nine, I sat on the couch for a while and thought and stared at the wall. I’m grateful I went back on Keto three weeks ago in a bid to lose the quarantine fifteen. The diminished hunger as a result of being in ketosis would help me later.
All morning, minutes passed as slowly as high school detention.
I did breath work, which gave the wall a break while I stared at the ceiling, took a bath with Epsom salts after turning up the AC, and played bird-on-a-stick with my cat for a solid hour.
The first hunger came on in the afternoon. It arrived and departed like waves breaking on the shore of my consciousness. I drank more water.
Tara Brach, meditation expert, author, and one of my favorite spiritual teachers, distinguishes below the line (of consciousness) from above the line activities. It is only above the line things, such as quiet contemplation or meditation. that truly rest us. Below the line activities, such as true crime programs or Candy Crush, are simply an escape that doesn’t benefit us in any real way.
Typically, on a day when I say I am doing nothing, my brain doesn’t know I’m doing nothing. Looking at a screen is looking at a screen, whether it be for work or a game. So I return to life afterward feeling unexcited to tackle my tasks, but duty-bound to make up for the time I wasted.
By midafternoon, memories I thought I lost come flooding back. I walk through scenes of the past, struggling to hold onto the memory of a dream from the night before. I can’t write the dream down until night falls. It is almost my birthday, and I sort through what life was like seven, six, fifteen years ago. Five years ago on this day I moved to NYC and began my life as a big city dweller. With nothing else to do, I am able to go deeper into the scenes and construct a narrative. I have come further than I have given myself credit for. It’s been less than two years since I got sober. I had dedicated the entire first year just to achieving lasting sobriety, and was ready to really jump into life when COVID hit. And that, it seems now, was just another thing that was meant to be. This collective pause. As I look back and back, I see that nothing that happened was without its rewards, although often it didn’t feel like it. Meaning reveals itself when it is ready to, and never before.
I do an entire hour of meditation at my altar on my cushion, timing myself with the kitchen timer and burning an entire candle down as I stare into the flame. I stick another candle in the melted wax left behind.
With less than four hours left till my fast is concluded, the hunger comes back and does not abate. I am done, I decide. I get it. I got it. I’m good.
I eat and go to the store, avoiding talking to people by using self-checkout. I realize I don’t have to fully break the fast. I don’t have to turn my phone on.
I take a sip of Coke Zero, and the caffeine hits my brain exactly the way it did in rehab when they gave us real coffee Christmas morning, a month in.
After my cauliflower crust pizza, I lament that I’ve never practiced fasting. As a Jew, we have a fast day—Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. I’ve only fasted on Yom Kippur once, by accident, because I was on cocaine.
I crack open Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” with two hours left to go. It’s a book, ironically, about not giving up.
I do make it a full 24 hours without screens or masturbation. These are a few of my favorite things.
Afterward, I feel more centered, more excited to do the big picture things that further my goals, creative and otherwise. The biggest shift in all these fasts is returning me from an “I have to” mindset back to “I get to.” I do not have to write this piece. I get to write this piece.
I stay up until four am reading “Wild.” I decide that any detox I incorporate going forward will be strictly of the digital variety. It’s just not a reset day without books.
This is definitely something I can do, and need to do, on a regular basis, though I am already nervous about the stricter rules of the next level. I am excited to see how this experiment carries over into the following week.