What is a ‘dopamine detox’ and how can it improve your mental health? | Health

In the age of distraction and overstimulation in the form of constant flow of engaging content on social media and internet, it’s common for your brain to feel drained and tired. The concept of ‘dopamine detox’ or dopamine fasting has been fast catching popularity among millennials which basically means taking a break from external stimuli that drives compulsive behaviours. Dopamine as we all are aware is a ‘happy hormone’ associated with pleasure, reward and motivation that keeps you going and making you strive to achieve things. An important neurotrasmitter, dopamine imbalance or having too much or less of this hormone in your bloodstream can affect your mental health negatively. Low dopamine levels are associated with brain disorders and mental health issues such as Parkinson’s disease, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), while high levels can make us indulge in impulsive activities. (Also read: Screen time dilemma decoded: New study explores risks and benefits of digital engagement in children; what expert says)

Dopamine is a ‘happy hormone’ associated with pleasure, reward and motivation that keeps you going and making you strive to achieve things. (Freepik)

If you find yourself hooked to Instagram or TikTok videos, Facebook, and WhatsApp, it probably is to do with your brain’s pleasure pathways that remain super-active when you are browsing through such addictive content – keeping you engaged and stimulated for hours together but ending up draining you to the extent that you are unable to focus on productive tasks at hand. If you too are struggling with completing tasks due to constantly checking your messages, emails and some pet videos, you too need a dopamine detox that can work wonders for your mental health as well as productivity.

Experts say that by limiting these external stimuli and letting us get bored or dissatisfied, we can control these unnatural urges to indulge in pleasure and replace them with healthy habits that are likely to make us more satisfied and happier in longer run.

“Our age of constant digital connection often overtaxes the brain’s pleasure pathways. Science indicates that activities like gaming and social media can spur harmful surges of dopamine, the neurotransmitter governing desire. This fuels shorter attention spans, impulsive behaviours, and even depression as we grow desensitized. A ‘dopamine fast’ offers respite by strategically limiting stimuli that drive compulsive dopamine-seeking. Taking a break from quick ‘hits’ of digital affirmation asks us to dive inward instead. By temporarily minimizing designated activities like causal web surfing or sugary snacks, we create space for reflection. The resulting boredom or dissatisfaction, while initially uncomfortable, can uncover deeper needs driving surface behaviours,” says Dr Chandni Tugnait, M.D. (Alternative Medicines), Psychotherapist, Life Coach, Business Coach, NLP Expert, Healer, Founder & Director – Gateway of Healing.

“Emerging research suggests that short-term absence in fact heightens sensitivity to more meaningful rewards, like close connections, intellectual challenges, and sensorial pleasures. With more intentional living, dopamine returns to more balanced functioning. By recalibrating the reward system, dopamine fasts renew appreciation for simpler joys untouched by keyboards. Our relationships, attention spans, and sense of fulfilment stand to benefit from such digital sabbaticals,” adds Dr Chandni.

What is a dopamine detox?

“A dopamine detox, often referred to as a ‘dopamine fast’, is a concept that has gained popularity in recent years as a way to reset the brain’s reward system and break free from excessive stimulation. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, reward, and motivation, and it plays a crucial role in our brain’s reward pathway,” says Dr Jyoti Kapoor, Founder-Director and Senior Psychiatrist, Manasthali.

How dopamine detox can help

Dr Chandni shares ways taking a break from screens and other such distraction can help:

Reduces overstimulation: Constant stimulation can lead to a desensitization of dopamine receptors, making it harder to find joy in simple, everyday activities. A dopamine detox can help reset these receptors.

Increases focus and productivity: By removing distractions and activities that offer instant gratification, a dopamine detox can help improve overall productivity, allowing for deeper engagement in meaningful tasks.

Promotes mindfulness: It encourages you to engage in activities that might not provide immediate pleasure but are fulfilling and enriching in the long run, such as meditation, reading, or spending time in nature.

Improves self-control and discipline: By consciously abstaining from certain activities, you can develop greater self-control and discipline, which are key aspects of emotional regulation and mental resilience.

Encourages healthier habits: It can lead to the adoption of healthier habits, as you might replace high-dopamine activities with those that are more beneficial for your mental and physical health. Some of these could revolve around immersing in nature, creative arts or building connections.

Enhances emotional stability: A detox can reduce the emotional highs and lows associated with dopamine spikes and crashes, leading to a more stable mood.

Improves quality of relationships: By reducing the time spent on digital devices, you may find more time and energy to invest in face-to-face interactions and build deeper, more meaningful relationships.

Dr Jyoti Kapoor adds more benefits of dopamine detox to the list saying it can improve mood and provides one opportunity to reflect and rejuvenate, giving a break from overstimulation.

Increased sensitivity to pleasure: By temporarily abstaining from highly stimulating activities, the brain’s dopamine receptors may become more sensitive to natural, everyday pleasures. This heightened sensitivity could lead to a greater appreciation for simpler activities and a more balanced reward system.

Reduced dependence on instant gratification: Engaging in activities that provide instant gratification, such as social media scrolling or video gaming, can create a cycle of dependency. A dopamine detox aims to break this cycle, encouraging individuals to find satisfaction in activities that require patience, effort, and delayed rewards. Over time, this shift may lead to a reduced reliance on immediate sources of pleasure.

Improved mood regulation: Dopamine plays a crucial role in mood regulation, and an imbalance in its levels has been associated with mood disorders. Proponents of dopamine detoxing argue that by rebalancing the brain’s reward system, individuals may experience more stable and regulated moods, reducing the likelihood of mood swings and emotional highs and lows.

Mindfulness and reflection: The break from overstimulation during a dopamine detox provides an opportunity for mindfulness and self-reflection. Engaging in activities such as meditation, journaling, or simply spending time in nature can foster a deeper connection with one’s thoughts and emotions, potentially leading to a greater understanding of oneself and improved mental well-being.

“Skilful balancing is key when experimenting with dopamine fasting. The intention is not to banish all delight, but to consciously recalibrate how we process pleasure. We can reshape our neural circuitry over time. Embark by integrating small, sustainable changes before attempting stringent deprivation. Each person’s rhythm and needs differ; this practice should feel nourishing rather than punitive. Consider starting with brief, scheduled breaks from a single habit. Professional support can help craft a customized approach that suits your lifestyle. Periodic check-ins track progress and reveal which replacements feel most life-giving. It takes patience and compassion to change such engrained habits,” concludes Dr Chandni.

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