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What is Dopamine Fasting?

There’s been plenty of media coverage (including the National Post) recently for something called Dopamine Fasting.  Since stress is a concern that many of us have on an ongoing basis, I thought it might be a useful idea for us to explore.

The idea of Dopamine Fasting became somewhat widely known after an article was published on Medium last year when a contributor shared his experiences of dopamine fasting for 24 hours. He described looking for something to help with distractions, procrastination, overwhelm and stress.

More recently, there was a piece on LinkedIn by American psychologist Cameron Sepah where he outlines what he calls Dopamine Fasting 2.0 which garnered a lot of attention.

What exactly is dopamine? Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s involved in how we feel pleasure. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that send information between neurons.

The idea is that because we are now constantly bombarded by stimuli, dopamine is also being constantly triggered. And the way in which our brains work, when things are pleasurable, the brain craves a repetition of it. 

But also, the brain adapts pretty quickly and things that were once pleasurable, become less so and it craves newer and more intense experiences to feel the same level of pleasure.

As a result, our brains on a subconscious level searches for more and more things that will trigger dopamine and feelings of pleasure… which can often lead to checking social media habitually, or always keeping busy.

It can also lead to problematic behaviours, like addictions (shopping, substances, gaming, eating, etc).

The basic premise behind dopamine fasting is to take a break from exposure to stimulus as much as it is possible to reset how the brain processes stimuli. Of course, there are always some folks who take it to the extremes and will try to refrain from engaging in ANY activities, even making eye contact or speaking to other people for too long.  As I generally do, I recommend a more moderate or balanced approach.

I like Dr. Sepah’s approach, which he describes as more of a ‘Stimulation Fast’, to decrease exposure to stimulation as much as possible for an extended period of time on a regular basis.

He suggests starting at one hour a day at the end of the day, and if so inclined, to gradually work up to four hours a day.

And then to add one entire day a week, a whole weekend once a quarter and one whole week per year.

What not to do during a dopamine fast:

  • Do not engage with screens or other kind of electronic stimulus (phones, computers, tablets, tv, etc.)
  • Refrain from any activity which might be too stimulating
  • Do not engage in other stimulus involving behaviours that you may have identified as being problematic (shopping, emotional eating, gaming, thrill seeking, substance usage etc)

• What to do instead:

  • Gentle movements (yoga, walking)
  • Be in service or helping others in person
  • Reading from a physical book or magazine
  • Writing with a pen/pencil and paper or expression without electronics
  • Meditating
  • Sensory deprivation tank

• What’s the point to doing all of this? It may seem like experiencing pleasure is a good thing, but just like anything else, too much of a good thing can be problematic. 

When it comes specifically to dopamine, we can find ourselves wanting more and more of it, which can be connected to stress and overwhelm and the intensifying craving for more novel experiences.

These fasts can help to reset the brain so that it requires less stimuli to feel satisfied. The less the brain needs to be satisfied, the more satisfied we can feel overall in general.

As human beings we’re wired for growth, our brains have not evolved to manage the amount of dopamine triggering stimuli that we now have in modern life. By adopting a practice to lowering constant stimulation, the less overwhelm, stress and focus it would be possible for us to have.

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