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Dopamine Fasting: Healthy or Harmful?

Living in a digital world has turned many of us into dopamine addicts; often the idea of a complete detox seems like the right thing to do. Grace discusses what motivates dopamine fasts and the potential risks of this health trend.

By Grace O'Sullivan, Co-Editor in Chief of The Croft

THE CROFT/ The digital world has turned many of us into dopamine addicts; the idea of a complete detox may seem like the right thing to do. Grace discusses the motivation behind dopamine fasts and the potential risks of this health trend.

The word ‘dopamine’, in isolation, is regularly associated with prosperous health - we receive dopamine from exercise, dancing, sex, experiencing the art we enjoy, and even foods rich in vitamins. Why, then, is a ‘dopamine fast’ deemed a health kick?

The rules of a dopamine fast vary from source to source, and practitioners can take it to whatever extreme suits them. At its most lethal, participants can only consume water. They must also repel all human interaction, music, television and wider technology. It is a detox from all the stimuli that activate this ‘happy hormone’- when we experience pleasurable activities, the brain rewards us by releasing dopamine. However, when we become hooked on consistently chasing this reward, we become prone to a weaker sense of self-control, constantly pursuing sources of stimulation.

Hilariously, dopamine detoxes are most popular in Silicon Valley, the spawning ground of tech companies including Apple, Facebook and Google. Having released a plague of technological overstimulation, the heads of these companies are now diligently fasting from the evils they’ve created. I suppose it’s sweet of them to at least pretend they can be monks as well as millionaires.

The dopamine fast intends to affect greater self-control; the idea seems to be that participants, rather than thoughtlessly hunting for dopamine stimuli, become less dependent on the chemical feeling and can adjust to a lifestyle with decreased stimulation. To me, this state of decreased stimulation is absolutely desirable. I’m constantly disturbed by our collective obsession for more; as feeble as it sounds, a twenty-minute walk with no phone can be genuinely transformative. I always feel reluctant to return back to it, to enter a more engaged and anxious state. By regularly tuning ourselves into environments where we are forced to chase the new, to seek out every sensation available to us, we deprive ourselves of a genuine feeling of peace.

So, while an unstimulated mind may be a soothing source of health, is the ‘dopamine fast’ a wise way to achieve this?

It seems that the term ‘dopamine fast’, while guided in the right direction, may be villainising the wrong enemy. Certainly, stimulators that trigger overloads of dopamine are beneficial to fast from. But dopamine is itself just a product of this stimulation, not the cause. This considered, it seems worthwhile to investigate activities that produce dopamine, but do not overstimulate the mind.

For example - if you decided to commit the entire day to avoiding screens, having sex and eating strawberries (all these activities, you’ll be pleased to know, trigger the chemical), I’m sure that, without having regimentally ‘fasted’ from dopamine, you would experience the desired effects (slower trains of thought, depleted levels of anxiety, many other lovely things). However, you would have reached the goal in a far less depressing way. And, frankly, lucky for you if you ever experience such a day.

In our societal chase for maximalism, we suddenly panic and feel the need to drastically cut back. Let’s be truthful: a strict dopamine fast sounds like the kind of day you'd probably like to avoid, unless you wanted to imagine yourself in Orwell’s 1984.

While it seems appealing to temporarily impose harsh restrictions on ourselves in the name of health, this obsessive culling of pleasure is often misplaced. Isn't it smarter to treat the cause of the problem first? Instead, we choose to let the effects build up and, only when they're at their worst, we impose the self-flagellating treatment of a fast. This, again, represents a pattern that we follow as a 21st-century society - a rapid cycle of over-indulgence, which then triggers a sudden shock of guilt. This guilt then pushes us into total, uncomfortable restriction. By rushing ahead thoughtlessly, we become addicted to these dopamine sources and suddenly terrify ourselves into a dramatic state of elimination.

But, what if we were simply more thoughtful? How does it look if we carefully consider why we are pursuing these dopamine triggers, and, importantly, identify which ones are problematic? We could avoid this rapid pattern. Many things can create dopamine, but do not provoke overstimulation.

I also think it’s important not to encourage self-shaming when we feel ourselves chasing these hits. Don't forget, many societal structures and companies set us up to pursue these pleasures. So, don’t blame yourself if you're struggling to moderate these behaviours. I promise you are a good person - even if you slyly reject your screen time cap every single day. Well done for trying.

Featured Image: Elvira Blumfelde