Here's What Happened When I Did A Dopamine Detox—And Why You Might Try It, Too

January 6, 2021

Rarely do I reminisce about the days when I didn’t have a smart phone, let alone a cell phone. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college in 2011 that I finally conformed and got my first smart phone. I think the fact that I was living away from my family for the first time and needed to be more “independent” made it a necessity. Fast track nine years and I’m still using smart phones, probably more than I should. From social media apps, to money apps, to lifestyle apps, to email and texting, and the random games I play when I’m really bored, I can’t see how non-beneficial it is to be using my phone. Yet, many health experts say that moderation is key, and apparently, most Millennials have all lost this key.

Recently I spent some time alone in an Airbnb to tend to my mental health. It was much needed, and I was super grateful for the opportunity. Having a place to call my own, even for a couple of days, with no interruptions, was bliss. I originally didn’t plan to spend a whole day without my phone until it dawned on me that I needed a dopamine detox.

The term “dopamine detox” (“dopamine fasting”) is in reference to a sustained break from daily activities that provide a certain award, or dopamine hit, to our brains. Recreational drugs, gambling, eating certain foods, shopping, and using smart phones all produce this chemical, dopamine, whether you are aware of it or not. That “DING” we hear when our phone goes off, even if it’s in another room, lights up certain signals in our brain that read as pleasure, thus leaving us wanting more and more.

Despite common misconception, “dopamine is not about pleasure,” according to Emory University neuroscientist Michael Treadway. This makes sense if you think about how scrolling through your feed rarely promotes feelings of joy, but often feelings of anxiety, envy, or FOMO. Rather, dopamine is about motivation, which is why it is involved in so many unhealthy addictions: to drugs, sugar, video games, and even—taken to an extreme—exercise. If you value being able to make independent decisions without the influence of addictions, a dopamine detox might be a useful experiment.

It was 8 a.m. on a Thursday when I officially turned my phone off. And so it began—the part where I had to figure out what to do with myself, even though my mind was already trying to get out of planning mode and urging me to just go back to scrolling.

I spent the day practicing yoga, meditating, reading a book for more than 10 minutes (which had been something I was craving), laying out in the sun, and cooking food.

The best part of all was when I spontaneously decided to take a walk.

Luckily, my Airbnb had a keypad, so without needing to bring keys or my phone, I left empty handed and out the door. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had done that! What a concept! I left to go traipsing in an unknown town with no map, and boy oy boy, was I elated. I spent an hour walking around, seeing historic parts of the town and reveling in nature. There were times I may have wanted to snap a picture or check Google maps, but with the new confidence I gained, I was trusting in the Universe and going with the flow.

It was so liberating.

That experience alone made me realize how sorely I have been missing out on living. I get so caught up on being “social” online that my sense of wonder had been lost. Finally, it felt like I had a weight off my shoulders. It felt like for once I wasn’t attached to my phone and all the people who interact with me through it. It felt like I could breathe again, without the burden of unrelenting news and constant friend/family/stranger updates on Instagram. It seemed as if I could just be again, not do. We are human beings after all, not human doings. I knew I could go on walks and “see” the world in person, but my phone would always occupy my time or act as an escape from the stressors of everyday life.

I know we could all argue how much we need our phones, and trust me, I’m on that same boat. Once I realized how overwhelmed I had been in 2020 and how much time I was spending on my phone because I was inside so much, I knew this was not healthy, nor sustainable, considering the state of my mental health.

I wholeheartedly think that anyone could and should do a detox, but I think it’s important to make it your own. Maybe it’s your phone or computer or TV that has you so overstimulated. Figure out what it is that you’re attached to that may be having a negative effect on your life and think about what your dopamine detox will be like, even if it’s only for a day. Also, let your family or a close friend know ahead of time just in case of emergencies, but don’t let that stop you! People for ages spread news around without the use of phones or the internet, so you can survive just one day. Think of your dopamine detox as you intentionally removing distractions temporarily and replacing them with higher quality habits/activities that promote mindfulness, rather than chronic mindlessness. Happy detoxing!

Also by Paige: Activist Burnout Is Real. How To Stay Sane, Joyful & Grounded As An Activist

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Photo: Jasmin Chew via Unsplash

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Paige Butzlaff
Paige has been writing since she was 7 years old. She's an avid fan of reading, especially metaphysical books, and sipping on matcha tea lattes. An ethical vegan, Paige is passionate about activism and raising awareness. Her passions also include yoga and cats. She calls Southern California her home and the Universe her playground.

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