Dopamine fasts have recently become popular in the past year because doing the fast can reset your dopamine levels and allow you to live a much happier and purposeful life.
To do a dopamine fast, you need to cut out any form of entertainment for the fasting period. No coffee, unhealthy food, technology like your smartphone and TV, sexual stimulation, drugs, social media, and you should even limit your social interaction with people at home.
Over the last century, technology and entertainment have evolved to insane levels. At any given moment in time, you can probably access some form of technology and entertainment. Many people theorize that this access to entertainment at any time we like has made us desensitized to the thrill that comes from enjoying experiences in the many forms they take. Of course, it’s different for everybody and people have their unique ways to have fun.
But the point remains that most of the things that give us enjoyment are already at arm’s length; for most of us, at least. Just like how we quickly get bored of doing the same thing over and over, we also lose some of the benefits that come from doing things that entertain us. This perception of entertainment is pervasive throughout different fields of study. There is a rule in economics called the law of diminishing returns. What it implies is simple, and we can think about it in terms of a thing or experience that you enjoy, for example, eating cake. The first few bites of that cake will be amazing and will most likely lift your mood. The next few bites will probably still make you feel better but at a lesser level than what the first bites achieved. At a certain point of eating that cake, perhaps at the point of satiation, you no longer add to your happiness. And at some point after that, eating cake even makes you feel terrible.
Try to apply that to anything at all that you do to keep yourself entertained. Binge-watching your favorite shows, for example, can stop making you feel entertained after you’ve made it routine. Using social media can feel like a chore, yet you can’t stop doing it. Eating indulgent snacks can be a source of enjoyment for some, but it quickly loses its value when done all the time (plus, it’s very unhealthy).
What Is a Dopamine Fast and What Is It For?
A dopamine fast is a recent trend that promises to help you deal with the effects of the overstimulation we experience today. The easiest way to describe it would be to think of it as a way to reset your mind. After so much stimulation from so many sources, your brain deserves a break to just be free. The thing about a dopamine fast is that the exact routine could be different for everybody. Not everyone treats food as a source of stimulation and enjoyment.
In the same way, not all people are fond of TV as entertainment and prefer reading instead. A dopamine fast should be carried out according to your needs. But before we get into all the details of what makes a good dopamine fast, let’s talk about why it’s so popular and what it does.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that affects the way you view rewards. However, its purposes are not just for that. Dopamine affects many levels of our lives as human beings, and it has a hand in more body processes than we think it does. Fortunately, we’ll only need to view it through a rewards system’s perception to understand how dopamine fasting works. The body uses dopamine to signal what pleases you and what you feel like you need to do more of. This factors into way more than just what makes us entertained. Dopamine heavily influences what makes us feel motivated, satisfied, and so much more (Berke, 2018).
If you are doing something that you enjoy, such as browsing Instagram, your dopamine levels will spike, which indicates that this is an enjoyable experience for you. Our compulsion to do things that are not productive comes from that signal. It tells the body that there’s a reward waiting for you if you just do this or that. Before you know it, you’ll automatically grab your phone whenever you’re bored or tired because you need that extra dopamine spike.
To sum it all up, dopamine has a lot to do with how you perceive actions. When you are doing something that entertains or motivates you, your dopamine levels will increase. This assumption is for healthy people, and not everyone’s dopamine levels change in the same way.
The idea of a dopamine fast comes from the fact that we have so much stimulation and entertainment on a day to day basis that we can no longer decipher what gives us the most enjoyment. To reset our minds, we need to get rid of all forms of stimulation that can provide us with entertainment or fire up our dopamine levels. Basically, you remove all opportunities for your dopamine levels to spike. In theory, this will change the way you look at your environment and will hopefully reset your future experiences.
Granted, you can’t just get rid of dopamine. It’s a crucial neurotransmitter, and we use it constantly for daily tasks. It’s merely the removal of excessive unearned dopamine that we’re trying to combat. In caveman times, it was hard to get your dopamine fix. You had to actually do something productive. But now, it’s way too easy to find stimulation.
How to Do a Dopamine Fast
The basics of how to do a dopamine fast are not that difficult to grasp. The most challenging aspect of a dopamine fast is actually doing it.
You’ll see many people who recommend certain things that they do in their dopamine fast. To a certain extent, you can try out another person’s dopamine fast routine and see how that works for you. But for the most part, you have to keep your dopamine fast a process that is specifically for you and tailored to the areas where you need to change the most. These areas could be different for everybody, and your rules for your dopamine fast do not necessarily have to be the same as everyone else’s.
That said, there are certain general rules that you should follow when doing a dopamine fast. Here are a couple of them:
No Internet and Social Media
The internet and social media need no introduction. All the people you interact with daily are probably well-acquainted with the internet and how social media works, and they are probably addicted to social media. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering how social media’s algorithms are designed to get you to spend endless hours on it.
Most people find themselves randomly scrolling through their social media feeds without conscious thought and are just doing it to pass the time. Even if the process isn’t enjoyable anymore, it has become the default for many of us. Bored while working? An immediate response is probably to grab your phone and open Twitter or Instagram for the latest news or stories.
That in itself is negative behavior and is a total waste of time. Enjoying yourself on social media is not the core of the problem. After all, it’s where we get to interact with people the most, especially during the pandemic. However, it’s so easy to forget about the purpose of social media as something productive and instead use it as a way to scroll through your phone or desktop mindlessly.
And social media isn’t the only problem by any means. The internet is full of distracting websites and content that can pull you in. There’s a seemingly endless amount of content you can find online, from forums, to YouTube, to Reddit to shopping websites. Instead of these things bringing you enjoyment, they drain the energy out of you and make you less productive throughout the day. You’ve probably noticed that going on your phone the moment you wake up will make you feel less motivated and more likely to stay in bed for the next hour or two. If you instead spend that time exercising or meditating, you are more likely to have a more productive day ahead of you.
No Movies or TV
Although it might not necessarily be something you would do during short breaks, it’s easy to get lost in your favorite show once you get home from work and can just relax. There are so many TV shows to watch and series to watch out for these days that’s it’s nearly impossible to keep up. With every streaming service producing their own unique shows, it can easily be a way to distract yourself for hours. You have endless content on Netflix, Hulu, or even your traditional TV subscription.
Do not watch any form of audiovisual entertainment at all during your dopamine fast. After abstaining from your favorite shows to watch for a week or so, you’ll probably enjoy them much more than before.
No Food With High Sugar/Fat Content
We all know that sugar can give us a boost of energy, and on down days, they act as a way to perk us up just a little bit. Plus, foods that have a lot of sugar in them taste great and improve your mood. At least, it can, for a little while. Similarly, there are also tons of foods with a high fat content that taste amazing, and you’re more likely to grab them since they’re convenient and better tasting than your traditional healthy foods. However, eating these foods is terrible for your body. Sure, they are alright in moderation and as a treat once in a while, but if you grab your favorite ice cream or snack every single time you feel down, that’s a problem right there.
It’s an unearned dopamine hit because instead of hunting down your food or finding it in the wilderness and then preparing it, you’ve just pulled it out of the refrigerator.
Caffeine provides us with a surge of feel-good hormones and can be an addiction for many people. It boosts dopamine by blocking the action of adenosine. Now, if you’re heavily addicted, you won’t be able to quit cold turkey, but you should still attempt to taper off during your dopamine cleanse. You’ll find that you’ll have more energy at the end of the cleanse because you don’t need as much caffeine to make you alert.
Caffeine has its own host of issues. It only makes you more alert by stressing you out, and stress is a risk factor for many diseases. Remember, the spike you get in dopamine from caffeine is essentially unearned. It provides a feel-good experience yet requires zero effort on your part.
No Sexual Stimulation
You can’t have sex, consume sexual content, or get off whatsoever during a dopamine cleanse. The dopamine spike from these things is massive. Normal sex is a part of everyday life, but for the purposes of a dopamine fast, it might be best to abstain from even that. If you have an addiction though, quitting can be an arduous process in itself, which warrants its own discussion. For more info, check out our article on noFap.
No Substance Use
Of course, substance use is not an option. During your dopamine fast, there should be no alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs. These are things that you might use daily to relax or to have fun with your group of friends. And for some, they are active coping mechanisms. But excessive substance use has adverse effects on your overall wellbeing and health.
This is where you are more likely to experience the physical effects of not having a certain substance or experience in your system for quite a while. But problems with substance abuse are a whole different topic, and a dopamine fast alone won’t fix your substance abuse problems.
For the most part (and for many people), a dopamine fast is most useful to curb an internet or social media addiction. As said before, it could be very different for you, and the rules above may not nearly be enough. You might have problems with video games or shopping, and if you do, you should create specific rules for those issues.
What to Do Before Doing a Dopamine Fast
The first thing you have to do before doing a dopamine fast is to identify which aspects of your life need profound change. There are easy ones to spot, like stop going online so much or stop overeating. But certain habits could be specific to you that you want to change about yourself. An example would be browsing less on a specific online website, for example, or watching too much of a certain YouTube channel.
You must recognize what things are supposed to make you happy or at least entertained, but no longer make you feel that way. At first, it might be challenging to decipher which aspects of your life are actual necessities and which ones are not. Unless you want to completely deprive yourself of everything (which you don’t want to do for long periods), you’ll need strict rules to follow. Once you’ve identified what those rules are, it’s time to set them in motion and start preparing.
Before you begin the fasting period, make sure to take the necessary precautions to not fail in the middle of your fast. If you are trying to get rid of your phone addiction, try to put it somewhere where you can’t access it readily. Don’t put it in your pocket or on your bedside table where you’re likely to reach for it when you wake up. If you are fasting from eating junk, get rid of all junk food in your kitchen or pantry before starting the fast. Environment is everything during a dopamine fast.
Just try to get rid of your usual temptations as much as you can. An additional precaution would be to tell a family member about your dopamine fast and ask them to keep you in check. Accountability will do wonders for the changes you want to implement. It can be easy to just backslide when you feel like no one is watching.
How Long Does a Dopamine Fast Take?
There’s no set amount of time to complete your dopamine fast. Some people will do it for a week, some people do it for 24 hours, and some for months. Generally, though, you should try out an entire week of a dopamine fast and then go back to regular programming. After that time, you’ll feel much more refreshed and ready to take on your regular activities. By then, enjoying your favorite things will be so much more entertaining and will be more rewarding.
Unfortunately, the results of a dopamine fast don’t last forever. Even if you modulate your use of the internet or whatever it is that you abstained from in your dopamine fast, you’re likely to backslide to old habits. It’s tough to quit social media and the internet altogether, and that wouldn’t be a good way to live your life. The internet is an infinite pool of content, and it won’t be easy to pull yourself out when you’re already down the rabbit hole. Thus, most people who swear by dopamine fasts do it regularly. Once they feel like the effects of the fast are wearing out or when they feel like they’re slowly sliding back down to their destructive habits, they do another dopamine fast.
Put simply, don’t expect results for the rest of your life. The idea of a reset is not a permanent solution but is an avenue for you to make the changes you need to live a more productive and happier life. Of course, a dopamine fast isn’t all about what makes you happy; that would be too much of a general term to be of any use. Your target is to eliminate many of the negative behaviors that inhibit you from properly enjoying things like watching movies, interacting with others, and even healthy eating to an extent.
Don’t let your lessons during the dopamine fast go to waste, though. Remember to excise unnecessary stimuli from your environment as much as possible.
What to Do During Your Dopamine Fast
The biggest issue with a dopamine fast is that you might have nothing to do. But in reality, you don’t have to get rid of literally everything you normally do during your fasting period. For example, you can sit with a cup of tea and just allow yourself to think freely. You can go out and take a walk and just enjoy the scenery around you. Of course, this doesn’t apply to all people, but try to think of ways to use your time wisely. You can do some cleaning that you’ve been putting off for a very long time or declutter your wardrobe. This may pale compared to consuming Netflix content, but it still provides you with peace and distracts you from withdrawal.
During your dopamine fast, you are mostly going to be bored, which isn’t bad. It’s okay to allow yourself to be bored during that period so you can enjoy your activities much more in the succeeding weeks. Plus, after the entire experience, you’ll have more control over your habits and compulsions.
Does a Dopamine Fast Work? [What the Research Says]
It’s not that a dopamine fast doesn’t work; it’s just that the name is misleading, and we should avoid looking at it in an extremely literal sense. You’ll find many sources online debunking the idea of a dopamine fast and how it doesn’t work.
You can’t realistically fast from dopamine since it is always in your system and just spikes up when you are doing something you enjoy. Healthy human beings will produce dopamine, and there’s no way to control that. However, you can exert some level of control as to your dopamine spikes. But even then, you are not in full control.
Also, tons of people online have managed to take the purpose of a dopamine fast to extreme levels that are bordering on unhealthy behavior. The perfect example of this is people not eating food for a few days to avoid the stimulus from eating. In reality, though, that’s not effective and will likely make someone irritated and hungry, two experiences that do not make life more enjoyable. It is possible to do a dopamine fast without completely depriving yourself of necessities like food. A dopamine fast won’t work if all you do is completely deprive yourself. That is unsustainable and will only bring you misery. Don’t do it.
Instead, do a dopamine fast in a healthy manner that directly changes your habits and compulsions. If you are doing a 24-hour Dopamine fast, then not eating for that period may be fine and won’t affect your health and wellbeing. But if you’re doing a 7-day dopamine fast, then it makes no sense to deprive yourself of food. The key is to make changes that target you. For example, if you tend to overeat, try to cut out unhealthy foods from your diet like junk foods or high sugar and saturated fat foods. These foods are the ones that you eat as a pick me up, so those are the ones that you should avoid as well.
If you look beyond the literal meaning behind a dopamine fast, it does work. There have been decades of behavioral studies that support the idea that is behind dopamine fasting. Sure, the science aspect might not exactly work like we think it does, and dopamine isn’t something we can bend according to our will. But the results that come from a dopamine fast will work; there’s no doubt about it. The idea of resetting or recalibrating your mindset is not new. It’s been around for the longest time, ever since technological stimuli has taken over our lives. Given that, it’s no surprise that a break from all the entertainment and technological stimuli forces the brain to go back to basics.