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How A "Dopamine Detox" Can Boost Your Productivity

It’s kind of ironic to come across posts on TikTok about dopamine detoxes, especially when you’ve been scrolling for five hours without blinking. But the hashtag #dopaminedetox has nearly 20 million views for a reason: It speaks directly to everyone who lives for the rush of social media, as well as anyone who feels the need to do 10 things at once all the time.

The practice isn’t a literal “detox”; rather, it’s more about taking a break from certain habits that are known to trigger the reward system in your brain, like scrolling online. If it gives you a “rush” of excitement, you can thank the feel-good hormone dopamine for that.

While there’s nothing wrong with doing things that make you feel good, a dopamine detox can help you assess why you rely heavily on these habits. According to licensed psychologist Stephanie Gardner-Wright, LMSW, taking a break from these habits won’t actually impact the level of dopamine in your brain. Instead, it encourages you to take a break from the constant stimulation so you can see what lies beneath. “If you find yourself constantly reaching for your phone, or if you always have to have podcasts and TV on in the background, it might be time to try a dopamine detox,” she tells Bustle.

A “dopamine fast” can also come in handy if you no longer enjoy the quieter, slower moments in life, thanks to all the over-stimulation, adds Dr. Taylor Day, a clinical psychologist and mental wellness and alignment coach. Think about how reading feels painfully boring, even though you used to breeze through books. Or how you don’t have the patience to cook anymore because it’s way more exciting (and convenient) to get takeout.

When a rush of dopamine is constantly calling your name, it’s easy to see why these things won’t hit like they used to, and why you might want to “detox.” Read on for more about the practice.

While you don’t have to do a dopamine detox, that nagging need to do more may be a sign to log off, turn off the electronic devices, and check in with yourself. The same’s true if you have that call to be stimulated 24/7.

To do a dopamine detox, start by zeroing in on what spikes your dopamine most. Day suggests looking at the areas of your life that make you feel burnt out or exhausted, as well as the habits that give you a quick “thrill.” Are you big into online shopping? Social media? Forums? Video games? Getting into arguments in the comments section? Or do you need to have 800 movies, songs, and podcasts playing at once?

Choose one or two, then “consider limiting or abstaining from these activities for a period of time,” says Jaime Mahler, LMHC, a licensed mental health therapist. Try to cut back for an hour, a whole day, or up to seven days, depending on what you’re giving up. Use the time to check in with yourself, to think about why you crave the hits of dopamine, or what you might be covering up.

It’ll help to replace the chaos with more mindful, “centering” activities. Instead of scrolling first thing in the morning, try yoga. Rather than watching Netflix for hours before bed, create a chill nighttime routine. Maybe turn off that podcast you always listen to and drive in silence — with nothing but your own thoughts — instead. You can also go for a walk, talk to friends, or slow down by simply doing nothing at all. Mahler suggests listening to the sounds outside your window or letting your thoughts pass without entertaining them as a way to feel calmer and more present.

Need more inspo to give it a try? Here are some benefits of doing a dopamine detox.

Even though it might feel good in the moment to scroll, it’s only when you put your phone down that you realize how stressed you actually feel. “The constant input of social scrolling and other compulsive activities can be very over-stimulating,” Gardner-Wright says, adding that taking a break can temporarily help you feel “calmer and less overwhelmed.”

If you’ve been struggling with a lack of creativity or a dip in productivity, a little boredom and silence can actually do you good. “Dopamine detoxes help you to tap back into your creativity and intuition by removing distractions and the mental static of staying constantly stimulated,” Gardner-Wright explains. “It makes room for your own thoughts, ideas, and sensations, instead of being distracted by them.”

It’s super common — and also super understandable — to seek out pleasurable activities as a way to stuff down tough feelings. Overloading your brain with stimulation can also push away unwanted thoughts. But sometimes it’s good to actually let them come up.

When you quite literally turn off the noise, all those emotions and sensations will bubble up, and you’ll have a chance to analyze them. According to Gardner-Wright, you can get through the discomfort — and maybe even start to come out the other side — by journaling, deep breathing, and talking to a friend or therapist.

Taking a break from your go-to dopamine-spiking activities — whether it’s online shopping, watching chaotic TV, or scrolling social media — can serve as a nice reset for your body and mind.

“Often, when we are in this mentality of going for more, our body goes into overdrive and our nervous system can easily become fried,” says Day. That’s why taking doing this “detox” can even help treat and prevent burnout.

“You may not be able to immediately read an entire book after an initial detox, because your brain and nervous system are so used to constant high levels of stimulation,” Gardner-Wright says. “But you’re literally building new neural networks by practicing that slower habit of reading a book, taking a walk, or focusing on one activity at a time.”

Of course, the goal of a dopamine detox isn’t to give up everything you’ve ever loved, but to see how your go-to habits impact you, Mahler says. “Taking a step back allows the brain to see what moderation may look like for you,” she tells Bustle.

That balance can help you feel more in control of your dopamine “cravings”, too. Instead of feeling like you have to watch Love Island as you get ready for bed, it’ll feel more like a choice. The same goes for checking your phone, looking at TikTok, etc.

Real talk? You’ll probably hate doing a dopamine detox, at least in the beginning. “It's hard to stop doing something your brain loves,” Mahler says, so you’ll probably have a hard time not looking at your phone, turning on that podcast, or watching TV while you eat dinner. It’ll feel weird, quiet, and incredibly boring compared to what you’re used to.

And that’s OK. Remind yourself that this isn’t a punishment for your brain, but a nice little break. “The energy behind the detox should be one of healing and self-growth,” Mahler says. Think of it as a form of mindfulness that’s helping you tap back into yourself.

Studies referenced:

Firth, J. 2019. The "online brain": how the Internet may be changing our cognition. World Psychiatry. doi: 10.1002/wps.20617.

Hartston, H. 2012. The case for compulsive shopping as an addiction. J Psychoactive D. doi: 10.1080/02791072.2012.660110.

Westbrook, A. 2021. Striatal dopamine synthesis capacity reflects smartphone social activity. iScience. doi: 10.1016/j.isci.2021.102497.

Sources:

Stephanie Gardner-Wright, LMSW, licensed psychologist

Dr. Taylor Day, clinical psychologist, mental wellness and alignment coach

Jaime Mahler, LMHC, licensed mental health therapist