It sounds bizarre, but could the wellness trend out of Silicon Valley help you feel happier and more present?
We’d just about got to grips with intermittent fasting and along comes another fasting trend: rather than food though, this is about depriving yourself of dopamine, the 'reward' neurotransmitter produced when we experience pleasurable things. Dopamine fasting is avoiding things that are pleasurable in an addictive way, with the aim to break addictive behaviour - we're talking compulsively checking your phone, or mindlessly scrolling despite the fact you're at dinner with friends.
In depriving ourselves of the dopamine hit, we are said to break our modern addiction to pleasure-seeking by finding pleasure once more in the simpler things in life - a walk in the woods, as opposed to getting 68 likes on your latest Insta post, for example. “The idea comes from the fact we are given too much stimulation in life and become desensitised and need to pursue higher levels of stimulation to get pleasure, almost like how drugs of abuse work,” explains nutritional therapist Daniel O’Shaughnessy. With a dopamine fast, the idea is that we can rediscover our love of life without the need to be constantly 'on'.
The concept was founded by Professor of Psychiatry Cameron Sepah at University of California San Francisco, who in August 2019 authored The Definitive Guide to Dopamine Fasting . Like its sister biohacking trend of Bulletproof Coffee, it's being embraced by Silicon Valley.
James Sinka, a Silicon Valley techie and dopamine fasting covert told the New York Times : “We’re addicted to dopamine and because we’re getting so much of it all the time, we end up just wanting more and more, so activities that used to be pleasurable now aren’t. Frequent stimulation of dopamine gets the brain’s baseline higher. Your brain and your biology have become adapted to high levels of stimulus, so our project is to reset those receptors so you’re satiated again,” he said.
It makes sense - when we first started uploading fuzzy pictures of cupcakes and coffee to our grid we were happy to get a couple of likes, whereas now we feel dissatisfied if the hearts don’t tot up to more than 100.
Dopamine fasting shares similarities with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as it utilises a CBT -based technique called 'stimulus control' which involves engaging in an alternative activity that is incompatible with the stimulus (ie. cycling as you can't use your phone at the same time), or putting the stimulus (i.e. your phone) away or making it harder to access.
How do you do dopamine fasting?
Dopamine fasting is essentially a digital detox, where you avoid phones, TV, gaming and social media, but in addition, you also resist replacing your smartphones with alternative stimulants such as sugar, alcohol or sex.
Don't feel like you have to meditate or do nothing at all during your fast, though; Cameron Sepah suggests engaging in exercise or cooking, chatting to loved ones, learning by reading books or listening to the radio or getting creative with writing or painting.
"The antiquated versions of dopamine fasting say absolutely no digital devices, but I find this to be missing the point," writes Sepah. "For example, browsing compulsively through various articles on your phone can definitely be addictive, while reading a single book on a Kindle Paperwhite device (which has no options for distraction) is probably fine. To decide what to fast from, simply regard whether it’s highly pleasurable or problematic for you, and thus you may need a break from."
What are the benefits of dopamine fasting?
“Dopamine fasting may help us escape habits that can result in responses that don’t feel good such as loneliness or binge eating. For example, it may help using a smartphone too much, the urge to keep scrolling on social media, or checking your phone immediately upon waking or before bed, " says Daniel.
Not everyone needs to dopamine fast - if your phone is confined to your bag most of the day, there's probably no need to detox from it. But if your screen time reports are sending you into despair or your Instagram addiction is impairing your social life or work performance, it might be for you.
“If you feel you have difficulty concentrating, poor motivation and reduced alertness then it could be worth a try,” says Daniel.
How long should a dopamine fast last?
There are no set rules when it comes to how long you should dopamine fast for; Cameron Sepah suggests increasing your fasting steadily, beginning with one to four hours of dopamine fasting at the end of the day, building up to one day per weekend, then one weekend per quarter, and finally one week per year - perhaps while on holiday.
Daniel goes for a harder approach, suggesting 23 hours out of 24. “Limit using digital devices to one hour per day or turn off for a weekend.”