All those warm and fuzzy feelings you get from life’s great joys like sex, food and fitness? That’s down to a chemical in your brain called dopamine. And the latest trend to take the wellness world by storm involves “fasting” from it.
“Dopamine fasting” found it’s roots in Silicon Valley, with followers abstaining from any experience that will trigger the release of the neurotransmitter in your body. These include the aforementioned activities as well as social media, video games and even eye contact.
So why would anyone want to deprive themselves of the best things in life and the pleasure that comes with them? Well, some claim that in our current, over-stimulated society we’re addicted to dopamine and by draining our reserves, we’re destroying our enjoyment of traditional mood-boosters.
We spoke to Lysn COO and Head of Clinical, Tahnee Clark, to find out what’s behind this concept and whether the science stacks up.
Do you think we are being overstimulated by choices and becoming less resistant to dopamine?
How many tabs do you have open on your computer? How many apps do you have open on your phone? In our modern society a lot of choice is at our fingertips and we’re suffering from overstimulation. Overstimulation happens when we’re swamped by more experiences, sensations, noise and activity than we can cope with. Being busy has become a modern normalised state of being. We are accessible almost 24/7 via our phones and constantly have notifications, emails and SMSs demanding our attention.
It’s common for people to think that being busy means we are efficient and that multi-tasking is a badge of honour. However, there is no such thing as true multi-tasking. Our brain only focuses on one thing at a time. What our brain is really doing when we jump back and forth between tasks, is making micro assumption based on our past and present experience to fill in the gaps lost while focused on another task. For example, when we are texting and walking, our brain is only truly present on walking without texting, and then moves to being absorbed into texting and unconscious maintains the movement of walking. We look up from time to time to readjust our trajectory and occasionally find that we’ve walked off track.
When we’re overstimulated, we’re feeding the body and brain more information than it can actively process, leading to an overburdening of the senses. This can have both a physical and mental impact. Overstimulation is exhausting and can leave us feeling overwhelmed. People suffering from overstimulation can find it incredibly hard and their life can deteriorate.
Further research is required into the relationship between overstimulation and dopamine. A large body of research has been invested into substance use and tolerance. Researchers are beginning to understand how abused psychoactive substances, including stimulants, interact with various cells and chemicals in the brain.
When a person develops a tolerance to a substance, they need more of it to feel the effects. Dopamine plays a role in this process. Substance abuse can overstimulate the reward centre. Our brain and body are constantly trying to maintain a state of homeostasis – the tendency towards a relatively stable internal balance. The brain tries to solve overstimulation in two key ways – by decreasing dopamine production and reducing dopamine receptors. Either change generally results in the substance having less effect due to a weaker response by the brain’s reward centre.
Regardless of if overstimulation is related to too many choices or other vices, in order to maintain good wellbeing, we need a balanced lifestyle. It’s important to have down time and ensure our mind and body have quiet time in familiar, calm environments.
What are your thoughts on limiting dopamine triggering behaviours or “dopamine fasting”? Is this an effective strategy for mental health or just a fad?
Whilst dopamine is primarily associated with pleasure and reward, it plays other important roles. It’s more important to focus on trying to create a healthy balance and limit being overstimulated than trying to fast specifically from dopamine.
Some people may be familiar with the term ‘the happiness trap’. We often compare ourselves to the fragmented parts of people lives that we observe through social posts, leaving us with a warped sense of reality. Pressure and expectation to always be happy is not realistic, sustainable or healthy. We are built to experience a myriad of emotions as normal responses to life events. This includes feeling calm, bored, content, engaged, sad and angry. Emotions are an expression of our values being triggered.
Practising mindfulness and meditation are great ways to fast from the fast-paced, overstimulating life we often leave. This type of fasting allows us time to stop and reflect, increasing our awareness of our self-talk and autopilot functioning. With increased self-awareness, we are able to make more responsive, well-informed decisions about whether our thoughts and behaviours are serving us well and how we would like to adjust. Research shows that life satisfaction isn’t about always chasing the highs, but about finding meaning and purpose.
Are there benefits to reducing some dopamine stimulating activities, in comparison to eliminating all?
There are definitely benefits to reducing some dopamine stimulating activities over others. Behaviours that are beneficial reducing include:
- substance misuse
- over caffeinating yourself through coffee, teas or soft drinks
- sugary drinks and foods
- screen time
These behaviours provide artificial and external chemical stimulation.
Behaviours that stimulate dopamine that can be restorative and health provoking include:
- balanced levels of exercise
- gratitude exercises such as listing three things you’re grateful for each day or expressing gratitude to others
- investing time into things that provide a sense of accomplishment
- getting into nature
- being creative
- giving and receiving genuine compliments
- the natural high when laughing with others
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