The phone pings; a notification pops up on the screen. It could be a message from a loved one, an enticing offer, or a reminder to pay an overdue bill. Regardless of its content, the notification distracts us from the task at hand. What begins as a brief distraction often spirals into minutes or hours of mindlessly scrolling leaving the initial task forgotten and neglected.
Many of us can relate to this repetitive pattern.
Although such behaviours can resemble addictive patterns like alcohol addiction and emotional eating, the daily habit of constantly checking our phones can also lead to its own form of addiction over time.
Cameron Sepah, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California San Francisco Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry, explains that this kind of behaviour results from increased dopamine levels in the brain as the beep or notification sound is a novel thing eliciting a pleasurable experience.
The constant surge of dopamine, driven by the search for novel distractions, can lead to impulsive and hence addictive behaviours, which eventually cause distress to the individual.
In 2019, Sepah came up with a concept called dopamine fasting to counteract these compulsive behaviours. Based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques, the rationale behind dopamine fasting is to move away from the rewards accompanying addictive behaviours.
“The focus is on ruthlessly cutting these types of impulsive habits and seeing if there is any kind of change in your mental state,” John Christy Johnson, a graduate student in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Alberta, Canada, tells Happiest Health.
But this is not necessarily a new concept. “It has roots in older practices of going on a retreat or to the wilderness to contemplate free of daily life distractions that people have pursued for hundreds or thousands of years,” says Kent C Berridge, professor of neuroscience at the University of Michigan, USA.
He tells Happiest Health that dopamine fasting incorporates recent neuroscience findings about the brain’s dopamine systems and mediates the ‘wanting’ cues of rewards. Several studies show that nearly all types of cues of rewards and incentives activate the dopamine systems. “So, the logic is that cutting down on exposure to distraction also cuts down on dopamine activations,” Prof Berridge further explains.
But why dopamine?
Dopamine is a chemical in the brain (neurotransmitter) that dons many hats. It regulates reward, motivation, memory, attention, pleasure, and satisfaction. Dr Berridge adds that in the substantia nigra of the midbrain and the dorsal striatum, dopamine is highly involved in movement. When this region is damaged, it often shows up as movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, due to reduced dopamine levels.
Read more: What’s the buzz about dopamine?
“But the system most famous for distractions and cue-triggered ‘wanting’ for rewards is the mesolimbic dopamine system, which lies in the midbrain ventral tegmentum to the nucleus accumbens,” says Prof Berridge. Moreover, studies have found that this mesolimbic dopamine system is activated by cues for rewards, including playing video games and winning money rewards. All of which could feed into addictive behaviours.
“The mesolimbic pathway is implicated in things like addiction. So, it is important to understand the circuitry there,” says Johnson. In CBT, there is reprogramming of this pathway in the brain so that it responds differently to certain addictive stimuli.
Cannot fast from dopamine
While doing pleasurable activities like looking at a notification on your phone increases dopamine levels, it does not go when you do not do pleasurable activities.
This misconception has led to the misinterpretation of dopamine fasting as being a form of dopamine ‘detox’. Many people went on to do extreme, almost ascetic activities that were devoid of pleasure, thinking that it would lower dopamine levels in the brain. Johnson says that the connotation of dopamine fasting is that you are getting rid of this neurotransmitter. Prof Berridge agrees. “The fasting does not really change dopamine levels or any other neurotransmitter.”
Dopamine fasting uses two CBT techniques:
- Stimulus control — doing an activity that is incompatible with the stimulus activity
- Exposure and response prevention. Stimulus control involves putting the stimulus away. The second technique involves becoming aware of the negative emotions. Sepah says that when a negative emotion arises, one must notice the impulse to pick up the distraction (like the phone) and let that urge come and go. During this urge, one must actively and consciously choose to return to the original work.
Sepah says in his guide that dopamine fasting is not about reducing dopamine, avoiding all pleasures in life, or not talking and socialising with other people. In fact, dopamine fasting is about ‘fasting’ from impulsive, problematic behaviour specific to the person, arising from constant dopamine activation. He also intended this concept to help tackle other behaviours that are just as addictive but even more distressing. These behaviours include emotional eating, gaming, gambling, shopping, and seeking a thrill.
“And dopamine fasting intends to help people refrain from these potentially addictive activities,” says Johnson.
- Dopamine fasting is not fasting from dopamine. Instead, it is fasting from the outcome of excessive dopamine activation.
- The idea is to not completely deprive yourself of pleasurable activities.
- Taking frequent or regular time-offs from the phone or from addictive behaviours can help in managing them.