Dopamine Detox – Fix Your Brain and Survive Modern Life With a Dopamine Fast

dopamine detox
Recently I’ve been experimenting with doing dopamine detoxes, sometimes referred to as a dopamine fast. This started a little over a year ago, when I went on a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. During that trip I didn’t have a phone, tv or internet. As a result, I was able to see the impact from the absence of technology; it was eye opening.

I was grappling with a difficult time in my life, having sold one of my businesses, I was lacking purpose and direction. I went from leading over 200 people, reveling in the chaos of break-neck growth, to the stillness of a lounge chair on the deck of an ocean liner, left only to contend with my thoughts.

Over the following months, the lack of aim left me spiraling towards a dark place. When I cleared away all the clutter and trappings of modern life, I started to see the impact of social media, phone notifications and the distractions of modern culture. That’s what led me to my journey of dopamine detoxing.

What Is A Dopamine Detox?

what is a dopamine detox

A dopamine detox is a practice where you remove low quality stimuli from your life and replace it with high quality stimuli. This allows us to rid ourselves of cheap fixes in order to build a meaningful and fulfilling life. By doing this we take advantage of the dopaminergic responses in our brains along with a host of other neurotransmitters, to build long lasting, purposeful experiences. Modern life has been optimized to lean on these neurochemicals in a way, I’d argue, that is unhealthy, or at least justifies examination.

The Science Behind A Dopamine Fast

the science behind a dopamine fast

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that a dopamine fast can have a positive impact in your life. Before we get too far though, let’s address the elephant in the room. The brain is a complex thing and while dopamine is part of this, it’s not the only factor that comes into play here. Dopamine is primarily in play with anticipatory pleasure and it could be argued other neurotransmitters play a larger role here. Calling this technique, a “dopamine detox” is a little bit of a misnomer, but not entirely inaccurate either, it’s the phrase most people use, so let’s run with it.

The Dangers of Social Media, Phones, And Modern Life

dangers of social media and modern life

Several years ago, I noticed a sinking uneasiness settling in around what social media, smart phones, the internet and modern life had become. It was a funny thing, because I’ve always been one who loves the internet and all things tech, I run this website after all! At first, I chalked it up to me “getting old” – at the ripe age of 30 at the time – but I was never satisfied with that answer.

That’s when a lot of studies started to come out about how suicide in teen girls jumped 300% because of social media and how phones and social media are leading to a rapid increase in depression and anxiety. The one thing that struck me the most was when Facebook’s VP of User Growth stated “I have tremendous guilt. The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.” See the video of Chamath Palihapitiya talking about the negative impacts of social media.

The dark foreboding feeling about various elements of modern life was not misattributed. Instead, I realized it was a very real factor of contention. After much searching and collecting my thoughts, I’ve been led to dopamine fasting as my response to the real challenges I face.

The question then becomes, how do we get rid of negative things in our lives that give us those hits of dopamine we’re so easily drawn to? The truth is that it’s really hard. The reason for this of course is because modern technology is perfectly optimized to abuse our dopamine system.

This is the root of low-level anxiety and depression in today’s society and the very reason why these diagnoses are so prevalent. Over the past 20 years we’ve seen depression and anxiety rise dramatically and it’s alarming. Simply put, we built a society that provides cheap and easy hits of dopamine as leverage for commercial profits and the bill for the true cost has come due.

Does A Dopamine Fast Work?

does dopamine detox work

In short, yes. A dopamine detox realigns your mind by trading the pleasure found from shallow sources with pleasure from meaningful ventures that provide lasting contentment. While the neuroscience behind it is complex, the premise is sound: remove toxic elements in your life and edify yourself with positive habits.

How to Do A Dopamine Detox or Dopamine Fast

how to do a dopamine fast

First understand that there is no one “right way” to do this, each approach will be different for different people. This is because we each have our own crosses to bear and what does “it” for one person, might not be right for you.

Every part of modern society, social media, and our phones are optimized to give us the rewarding feeling of dopamine hits, but these are fleeting and surface level.

To make this a bit easier to understand I want to explain this with a conceptual framework I’m calling behavior “loops”. Essentially a behavior loop is a behavior cycle where we experience a trigger, we decide to respond to it with an action, that action triggers a response, and then that action is reinforced. We have “escape loops” and we have “engagement loops”.

Escape Loops: Shortcuts To Happiness That Leave Us Miserable

escape loops

Escape loops are essentially things in our lives that provide us with low value pleasures. They are characterized by a big hit of dopamine, that’s quick, easy and cheap to attain. The “loop” of escapes loops typically breaks down to something like this:

Typical Escape Loop

  • We become bored, anxious, unhappy or lonely – feelings from something unfulfilled in your life
  • These feelings bring with it a low-level stress and our cortisol levels start to rise
  • We feel the urge to resolve this and are faced with a choice: solve the root cause (which is difficult) or seeking an “escape” which is cheap and easy to attain and gives us the highest spike of dopamine
  • Feeling that hit of pleasure for this escapism, we start to rely on it, creating a dependent feedback loop
dopamine escape loop

Escape loops offer a way to side step the root cause of the problem and just skip to feeling good, even if it’s a shallow pleasure. We essentially sacrifice our future well-being by avoiding the real problem all for a cheap dopamine hit. Looking at it in this manner, it’s similar to how drug users operate: feel bad, instead of fixing the issue they seek a high, then come down to only feel worse. At its core, an escape loop is a self-sabotaging behavior.

Some examples would be: When we feel bored, instead of developing hobbies, we pick up our phone. When we feel anxious about a difficult conversation that we need to have with the person we are dating, we ghost them and move on to a new person. If we are miserable at work, instead of seeking a new opportunity, we have a few beers or glasses of wine each night to forget it all. Rather than going on dates to meet someone new, we pull up a website and watch a video to get off. Escape loops are different for each person.

Examples of Escape Loops

social mediacell phone alertsjunk fooddating appsvideo games

ASk Yourself These Questions

  • How do you sacrifice long term happiness for immediate pleasure?
  • What are the stories and mindsets that lead to self-sabotage?
  • What are you giving up by wasting time on low worth behaviors?
  • What are your go-to escapes?
  • What shortcuts are you taking?

Engagement Loops: Fixing The Core Issues For Long Term Contentment

engagement loops

Engagement Loops are essentially the opposite of escape loops. Instead of seeking quick hits of dopamine, we delay gratification to build a deeper and richer life for ourselves over time. If we don’t make this conscious choice, we fall into the trappings of modern society that have been designed to reward us in ways that are advantageous to those who want to capture our attention for their own benefit.

Engagement behaviors are often the difficult road, the things we know we should do, but don’t really want to do. I know after a long day, the last thing I want to do is leave the comfort zone of my home and hit the gym, meet up with friends or go on a date.

Sometimes the choices seem trivial: order a water or a diet soda at dinner. Our friend is a few minutes late, do we pull out our phone or take a minute to reflect on the day. The truth is, a good life is built on a strong foundation of small positive actions taken over and over again, it is the aggregate of these “trivial” things that actually make a good life. I once heard a top Olympic athlete say he visualized the little actions like laying a single stone, each one building his castle.

Typical Engagement Loop

  • We become bored, anxious, unhappy or lonely – feelings from something unfulfilled in your life
  • These feelings bring with it a low-level stress and our cortisol levels start to rise
  • We feel the urge to resolve it, so we reflect on the root cause and choose to do the difficult work of fixing it
  • After taking positive steps we start to feel better about our decisions, it is positively reinforced over time
dopamine engagement loop diagram

Engagement loops are difficult work that requires dedication and effort, but results in an outcome that is deeply meaningful. Engagement loops build lasting change that leads to a life worth living. After much reflection on this, I believe that engagement loops build fulfillment, answering the greatest question of them all, arguably the most important question: what is the meaning of life? Engagement loops are different for each person.

Examples of Engagement Loops

in-person connectionmeaningful intimacytake time to disconnecteat healthyintentional datingread a book

Ask Yourself These Questions

  • Why am I feeling the way I’m feeling?
  • What are your go to escapes? What does that inform about what needs to be fixed?
  • Where am I abdicating responsibility?
  • Will future me benefit or suffer because of this?
  • What are my goals and what actions move me towards or away from them?

Replacing Escape Loops With Engagement Loops For Dopamine Detoxing

replace escape loops with engagement loops

Think about the challenges you face in life, the shortcomings you have as a person, and the long list of failures in your past. Analyze these symptoms and try to discern what the root causes are, these are the things you need to counter, because they are the things you try to avoid dealing with when you seek an escape loop.

I recommend focusing on one main escape loop at a time, but layering a few positive engagement loops to replace it. The reason for this being they provide a big hit of dopamine over a very short period of time, similar to how our brain reacts to narcotics.

Compare that to something like eating a healthy diet, at first there is not a whole lot of reward, but over a long period you see the benefits. It’s no wonder that getting a lot of “likes” on your latest social post feels better than getting dressed, driving through traffic, and paying $10 for a drink to have a conversation with someone you just met for the first time.; At first, receiving the “likes” feels better but the long term implications tell a different story.

It is for this reason I suggest you replace your worst escape loop with many engagement loops to have any hope of making the change stick. If we layer in these positive forces, their high-quality dopamine hits will overpower the cheap easy thrills of our vices.

Convert Escape Loops to Engagement Loops

dopamine detox escape loops vs engagement loop
dopamine escape loops vs engagement loop

What Are The Dopamine Detox Rules?

what are the dopamine detox rules

There are no hard and fast rules and it depends on how long you plan to detox. While it can be nice to do a deep detox where you totally cut things out, most of this might only be able to do this for a single weekend. I hold the belief that quick fixes fall prey to the same faults that surround our escapes.

24 Hour Dopamine Detox Rules

24-hour dopamine detox rules

Some people like to try a short 24 hour fast, though the impact of this will be minimal, unless followed up with a prolonged detox which strikes the balance of you needing to handle daily life while keeping the big offenders at bay. Here is a general list of rules for a 24-hour dopamine detox:

24-Hr Dopamine Detox Rules

  • No electronics of any kind (phone, tv, computer, video games, etc.)
  • No reading of books, newspapers or magazines
  • No sex or masturbation
  • No talking
  • No food (consult doctor, but drink water)
  • No music, podcasts, tv or movies
  • No Coffee or other stimulants

30 Day Dopamine Fast

30-day dopamine detox fast

Most of us can’t run off to a mountain top and live like a cloistered monk for several months, so we need to take a more measured approach and, if truth be told, this is going to be more effective. seeking a quick fix is an escape loop in and of itself!

Additionally, we need to be able to live and operate in society, we have to be able to contend with the pulls of modernity, so we must struggle to find our paths despite these things. To effectively replace negative loops, we need to slowly reinforce our new positive habits over time.

Start by choosing one of your bigger escape loops that feed your dopaminergic system in a negative way and define 3 engagement loops to replace it. Use the above questions about escape and engagement loops to determine what your particular burden is, think about how this impacts your life, then determine what positive actions should be used to replace it. For Example: if you dread your work, instead of complaining about it and drinking a few too many glasses of wine. Commit to polishing up your resume, set a goal to take an interview per month and when you feel the stress of work, instead of popping a cork, go outside for a walk.

You want to try to choose negative loops and positive loops that have symmetry to them. Understand the root cause of your discontent and dopamine seeking behavior, then develop a related counter to it. We want to train ourselves to recognize when we are reaching for that escape loop behavior and then replace it with one of our engagement loops. This gradually will disincentivize our negative behaviors and build a positive feedback loop for our good ones.

Each person should figure out which escape and engagement loops apply to their lives, because it will be specific to each individual. Here are some general tips I suggest during your 30+ day detox:

30 Day Dopamine Detox Tips

  • Turn off all the badge icons and notifications on your phone, set it to silent
  • Uninstall all social media, dating and work apps from your phone
  • When you’re doing work, close your email screen and turn off notifications
  • Try doing only one task at a time, avoid multi-tasking
  • Make sure you spend time outside each day
  • Try meditating, even if it’s only for a few minutes
  • Be present with your friends, family and romantic partners, put down the phone
  • Consider doing some journaling exercises
  • Drink water each day

Take these as suggestions, each person is going to need something different. Just be honest with yourself and realize that replacing these behaviors requires hard work, self-discipline and effort on your part.

How Long Does It Take To Adjust Dopamine Levels?

how long does it take to adjust dopamine levels

This is a complicated question, but in general it can take an average of 66 days to build a new habit. The brutal thing is that bad habits can take root much faster and it can take a long time to build good ones.

Dopamine levels change from minute to minute as our bodies react to the world around us, as I pointed out above, the title of “dopamine detox” or “dopamine fast” is a bit of a misnomer. We always have dopamine; it’s always reacting and too little or too much can be bad for our health. We shouldn’t really try to control our dopamine levels, just the behaviors we choose to engage with that might act as levers for dopamine.

Great Books To Check Out On This Topic

great books to read about dopamine detox

the molecule of more

The Molecule of More

by Daniel Z. Lieberman & Michael Long

how to break up with your phone

Break Up With Your Phone

by Catherine Price

habits of a happy brain

Habits of a Happy Brain

by Loretta G. Breuning

Your Turn!

  • Have you tried doing a dopamine detox, how did it go?
  • What escape loops are your cutting out for better engagement loops?
  1. Amazing post. Everyone should read this article. All your posts are also really good. Keep it up.

  2. This was a solid read. Really appreciate the insights and the way to do a 30 day detox. Going to try doing a 30 day detox and will collect data and blog about it myself. I also hope this comment unironically gives you a hit of dopamine! I always just get spam comments on my own site but whatever, I want you to know I really enjoyed your content!

    • Hey how did it go you shouldn’t be replying to this if you did properly

  3. Beautiful I would like to join you and write blogs on essential topics inflicting human lifestyle and brain anatomy.

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