We begin with a simple scenario. Imagine yourself alone in a room. You might be working on your laptop, or reading a book, or even just relaxing. Suddenly you hear a buzz or a ring from your phone. You perk up and immediately reach for it. It might be the email you were expecting from your boss or a text from someone you like. It arouses your curiosity, and your heart starts beating faster. It doesn't matter what ends showing up on your screen; the only thing that matters is now, you are in...
We begin with a simple scenario. Imagine yourself alone in a room. You might be working on your laptop, or reading a book, or even just relaxing. Suddenly you hear a buzz or a ring from your phone. You perk up and immediately reach for it. It might be the email you were expecting from your boss or a text from someone you like. It arouses your curiosity, and your heart starts beating faster. It doesn't matter what ends showing up on your screen; the only thing that matters is now, you are invested. Why is it that even before you knew the outcome, you got excited? This is because of a well-known neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for regulating a person's decisions based on their wants or needs. For example, if you're hungry, you'll go looking for food, and dopamine is the messenger that lets your brain know it's time to eat.
What is a dopamine detox?
A dopamine detox, or dopamine fasting as it has now begun to be known, removes oneself from situations of external stimuli that would lead to an excess of dopamine. The concept, created by California psychiatrist Dr. Cameron Sepah, introduced it as a cognitive-behavioral therapy method. In the day and age where technology rules our lives and social media determines the content we consume, it is necessary to become semi-permeable to the bombardment of the bright light of the fast life. However, dopamine fast does not mean that abstaining from these stimuli will inhibit the natural chemical release or lower these levels. The purpose of bringing this study to life is so that people with addictive personality traits can live a more balanced and relaxed life instead of chasing for their so-called next "dopamine hit."
Abstaining from impulsive desires can condition a person's behavior to become more accepting of trivial day-to-day situations where they may stay at home and resort to meditation, relaxation, and even introspection. In short, a person may become open to accepting 'boring' situations by viewing them as opportunities for self-inventory or mental clarity.
For almost a month, the detox will require you to give up one thing each day, whether social media, meeting new people, going out, etc. The goal is to abstain from excessive dopamine release by not engaging in your typical daily thrills. Each day needs to end with a careful self-examination of how you fared. This 21-day challenge will provide you with the correct and safe way to gauge what aspects of your life are essential to you and which ones you are willing to let go of from time to time. This is a journey to self-heal and realize what makes you truly happy in life. It's the opposite of what Marie Kondo might have told you: If it does spark joy, let it go. That is, for a while, at least.
Write It Down
The detox is a great way to introduce mindfulness into your life. If you're mindful, you won't stress over days where life might be moving a little too slowly. To gauge the build-up of mindfulness as you move through each day, you are required to journal your thoughts. For each day, you will be presented with a question that you will need to answer.
Day 1: Sugar
Sugar, like most things in life, is addictive. Sometimes a sweet tooth can lead to bitter effects like weight gain and dental decay. Sugary foods provide high but short-lasting bursts of energy, and simultaneously, dopamine. If a craving is needed to fill during the day, fruit is the healthiest alternative to something sugar-packed. It might not be the hardest thing to quit, but certainly, you'll feel the effects. At the end of your first day, take out your journal and answer this: What was I feeling the minute before I started craving something sweet?
Day 2: Music
Music can inspire us, shift our mood, and turn the most mundane activity into a full-blown choreographed stage number. It can provide intense feelings of energy and emotional arousal. Our brain can turn these mechanical air pressure changes into electric signals that sync our bodies to the sound. Scientists have been able to track the simulated effects that music has on our brain activity. For your second day, you will be abstaining from your mood-tailored playlists. If the silence becomes too much for you, consider listening to podcasts instead. They will help you escape your thoughts just the same and be informative at the same time. At night, during your journal session, ask yourself this: How often do I put on music to shut out my surroundings?
Day 3: Caffeine
There has been some recent debate about whether you can get addicted to coffee or not, and hence, it is still considered trivial to nicotine. However, caffeine provides a gateway for dopamine to dispatch generously, even if it doesn't directly increase chemical levels. You can consider caffeine a socially acceptable drug in that way, a minor player when it comes to cocaine. Caffeine becomes a quick fix to drowsiness by giving you this chemically induced feeling of motivation and energy. Drinking coffee with your friends and peers is a social activity that makes you feel included in a daily ritual and releases even more happy hormones. It is true even for cute old ladies drinking tea together in the afternoon. Don't be fooled; they're all after a fix of dopamine. If staying awake is required, drinking water is an easy and quick substitute bound to refresh you. After a long day (which I'm sure it will be), sit down to write about how you handled yourself on that day. Consider this: Why did I start consuming caffeine in the first place?
Day 4: Social Media
This is the one. These are the words you weren't ready to hear yet, which is why they're here so early in the game. Social media is an active resource for communicating and connecting with people, but it has become a critical source of content consumption. Keeping up a consistent online presence not only takes up a lot of our time but it gives rise to anxieties and insecurities. It perpetuates competition and comparison amongst celebrities, strangers, and even friends. After all, it's hard to compete with someone that looks like they're having the best time of their life in that post-workout mirror selfie. On day 4, do yourself a favor and detach yourself from your social presence and focus on being present in the now. Each time you get an itch to check up on what your twice removed cousin from your mother's side is doing, take a long breath and distract yourself with a hobby—something that you enjoy doing, something that you only do for yourself. End the day with introspection and ask yourself this: How authentic am I sharing aspects of my life online?
Day 5: Too Much Information?
Research conducted by Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley has found that information acts on the brain's dopamine-producing reward system in the same way as money or food. Our brain anticipates the receiving of information and releases levels of dopamine. As social beings, we want to stay over-informed, whether about the news or gossiping about someone's life. Now that the internet has become a vehicle for daily intake, it's hard to ignore it thrown your way. Studies have shown that taking in too much random data can be harmful and make it difficult to focus on things that matter. On this day, instead of refreshing your browser 20 times a minute, lessen the online chatter and focus on yourself for the day. Try not to indulge in clickbait or gossip; instead, focus on your work and your productivity. When you sit down to write, ask yourself: How can I control the information coming my way?
Day 6: Going Out
For a lot of us, one of our worst fears is being lonely. We tend to forget that being lonely and being alone are two different things. Social interaction is essential to maintain good mental and physical health. Surrounding ourselves with people that make us feel better and a part of something big can get us through the toughest of times. However, in some cases, going out every day can cause us to become dependent on other people for regulating our own emotions or burn us out on the other side of the spectrum. Stay indoors and spend time having conversations with yourself that you have been putting off on this day. Now is your time to reflect and give way to self-love. In the end, answer this: What are my vices and virtues, and how can I work to improve?
Day 7: Movies and TV Shows
We're all guilty of watching just 'one more episode' of our favorite fiction or reality TV show. It's kind of how weird time will go by faster when Game of Thrones is on. Well, according to London Business School Professor Patrick Barwise, the high rise in screen time is because consuming this kind of content provides us an escape from our daily struggles. An hour of your favorite show can take your mind away from all that is happening around you. Instead of escaping to your fantasy world of spaceships or witch hunters, use the time to meditate and settle your heart regarding your worries. When you've had the time, write down how you feel. Answer this: What worries was I able to control?
Day 8: Exercise
A good workout will provide you with the happy hormones your body longs for. Exercise can critically change the way your body and mind behave in unison over a short period and has a good hand in building a routine. The purpose of this day is not to ruin your well-set exercise routine, but it is a chance to give your body the proper rest and recovery that it deserves. The point is to inspect how your body feels on its off day and what you can do to ensure it's at its 100 percent before your next workout. While you listen to the silent signals, your body gives you, note how you feel. Ask yourself: How can I reach optimum physical health while still be in touch with my mental health? This introspection does not even require you to work out.
Helpful tip: you can shift this day around to match your rest day.
Day 9: Do It Yourself
Living a fast life means we tend to get addicted to instant gratification, which is a sure way of increased dopamine levels. Whatever we desire, we want now and with minimum effort. Whether your morning coffee at the local cafe or lunch during work hours, swap it out from homemade.
On this day, try to value the effort you have put into everything you made from scratch. At night, in your journal, give this a thought: What was the value of making an extra effort today?
Day 10: Snacking
Yes, food addiction is real, and we are here to let you know about it. Since the brain goes after things that will give you a dopamine boost, cravings will almost always include your favorite junk food. Modern-day junk food results in a higher increase in dopamine levels, making it possible for the next craving to be even stronger. Plan your meals on time and make sure they're hearty to curb any cravings throughout the day. After your final meal of the day, sit down to think: How often do I neglect my body the proper nutrition it needs?
Day 11: Spend the Day Outdoors
Another way to decrease dopamine levels is to spend more time outside and in nature. Being away from the lights and noise of city life can have tremendous effects on keeping your senses unstimulated. Plan a day to get some fresh air and explore what mother nature has to offer. While you're out in the wild, use the opportunity to do some introspection on your life. Ask yourself: If nothing was stopping me, how would I want to live my life?
Day 12: Shopping
Dopamine is released in anticipation of a reward, not when your brain receives it. So the anticipation of going to the shop in search of what you want tends to give us quite a happy boost. Notice how excited you get every time you hit that checkout button while shopping online; it's called "retail therapy" for a reason. You can start your fast from shopping a week before to give yourself a real challenge, and when you end up on day 10, use this time to think about what material things mean to you and do they compare to the real joys in your life?
Day 13: No Talking
Throughout your journey, up till now, you've managed to go a day without going out and meeting people but still have your phone, and then a day where you didn't have social media. Now, it's time to try out something more challenging to establish how much progress you've made. On this day, you are tasked with not talking. This means complete silence and zero social interaction. Any conversation that we have can have a significant influence on a shift of moods. Conversations that make us feel better will increase dopamine levels in the body significantly. Even though talking to our friends when we are going through something may help, often, we will become dependent on having someone to listen to us all the time. During your bout of silence, think about this: How often do I go out seeking advice from other people?
Helpful tip: Make sure to do this on the weekend.
Day 14: Personal Hobbies
When we take part in our hobbies, chemicals like dopamine are released in the body that provides us pleasure. Hobbies can be anything ranging from reading, painting, dancing, cooking, etc. Every individual will have hobbies specific to their interests. Happy hormones released during an activity will make us want to partake in the activity more and more. On this day, abstaining from these activities will give you a chance to tackle the boredom head-on and see how you fare with it. Throughout your day, you will have more time to meditate and self-reflect. You can write down your thoughts on this: How and when did you start your hobby?
Day 15: Sleep
Sleeping well can have a good effect on your mood and behavior. Having a proper routine will correctly regulate the dosage of dopamine your brain produces. When we try to keep ourselves awake through unnatural means such as caffeine or being up on our phones, dopamine levels will grow in excess and affect our body's natural rhythm. You'll end up feeling more tired by sleeping at odd hours of the day to make up for it. Take a week to test this out. Once you get into a proper sleep routine, you won't need an extra dopamine boost to keep yourself awake and focused. When you sit down to write, think about this: What more can I get done in a day when I'm properly rested?
Day 16: Nicotine
It's day 16, and by now, you're probably well versed in what can affect your neurotransmitters. Nicotine, like any other chemical, will affect the number of receptors in your body. Increased consumption will increase the number of receptors. For people addicted to smoking, it is a stress reliever, makes you focus, and helps you socialize. Abstaining from nicotine consumption for a day will be difficult, but taking the first step to alleviate damaging health habits is exactly what you hope to achieve through this challenge. If you're not a smoker, you can substitute this with another day off caffeine. While writing in your journal, keep this in mind: What daily life situations lead me to smoke?
Day 17: Recreational Drugs
Taking recreational drugs will boost your brain's chemicals since they replicate how neurotransmitters work in releasing hormones. If you regularly micro-dose or are someone that only takes them on the weekends at a party, you'll know the feeling it leaves you with: wanting more. This is because it provides you with a sense of euphoria that can only be replicated by taking more. Abstaining from these practices is a chance to give you more mental clarity. You can use the time to seriously think about these practices and their effect on your life. You can extend the hiatus to two weeks to ensure it's effective. Ask yourself: What pushes me to these practices in the first place?
Note: this does not include prescribed medication from a specialist.
Day 18: Alcohol
Alcohol consumption is a common practice among adults of all ages, especially at social events. Alcohol will raise dopamine levels and make you feel like you're having the time of your life. To test yourself, you can adjust the challenge to fall during a day when you are going out with friends or attending a party. In your journal, write your answer to this: What can replicate the feeling of happiness brought out by alcohol?
Day 19: All About Sex
When a person is sexually stimulated, blood flows to select parts of the body while dopamine levels go haywire. Pornography may also activate the dopamine system. The activation of high dopamine levels is what has led to being the leading cause of porn addiction. This may lead to unhealthy expectations about sex and inhibit proper sexual function, especially in men. Take the time to understand what relationship you hold with sex and how you view pleasure. Ask yourself: What have my past sexual relationships been like?
Day 20: Overcoming Rage
It may not seem like it, but recent studies have shown that losing your temper is linked with high levels of dopamine and adrenaline in the body. Learning to control your emotions under stressful situations can lead to a lower risk of having an outburst of anger. Over these 21 days, keep track of your responses to situations that require more mental effort. On this day, compile these instances together as you sit to write down your thoughts. Ask yourself: What situations cause my first response to be in anger and why?
Day 21: Risk-Taking
During this month, you're asked to stay away from practices that may influence the life you live and what pleasures you chase. Studies have shown that taking risks, such as gambling, is known to increase levels of dopamine. For the duration of the challenge, work on minimizing making impulsive decisions that have a greater risk-to-reward ratio. At the end of Day 20, try to think of what risks you take daily and how they are harmful?
Lastly, to conclude, the purpose of this challenge is to take the first step in evaluating your life, including your interests and actions. By writing your thoughts down, you'll be able to better navigate through your feelings. Remember to be kind and honest with yourself during this time. We wish you the best of luck.
Dr. Kapil Singh is an editorial contributor of JournalOwl. Dr. Singh received his basic medical education and training from Khyber Medical College in Peshawar Pakistan. He is currently working as an on-call doctor in a government hospital and pursuing the US medical license pathway -- The USMLE -- with a plan to complete his training in Psychiatry and Neurology. He's committed to using his abilities as a writer for advocating better mental health practices, negating pseudoscience, and helping people get accurate medical information -- all with a bit of humor.
Dr. Singh spends his free time volunteering in remote areas, debunking online mental health myths, catching up on movies, and writing -- both medical and creative.