Our brain is a biochemical factory. I am sure you have heard me say that often if you have met me in person in therapy or workshop. This post is on dopamine. With more people calling at random hours claiming to have diagnosed yourselves with depression from some nuisance test that popped up online and bearing the brunt of my ire for being so gullible to click bait tests that have no purpose but to keep you addicted to similar tests and posts online, I felt that I had to write about it.
The neurotransmitter DOPAMINE is what this post is about. In short it helps with pleasure, desire and is deeply connected to the reward system. A person hooked onto social media for example and spends hours on mindless scrolling, someone who posts selfies and attracts the “likes”, the video game addict who loses time increasing the illusion of winning with least effort and also the student who studies to score good grades and appreciation, a person who indulges in tough tasks to win all in someway are driven by dopamine. It is needed for us to have a drive and desire to live. However, in moderation its a wonderful chemical to have. In extremes it is something capable of making us moody and addicted. I am not going into the many studies that neuropsychologists have conducted to arrive at the conclusions. However, I would like to highlight some essential areas where we need to look into this.
Each day I have calls and emails from people who have been unable to get their child or teenager away from a screen, people who want to get off social media, binge watching movies and series or video games and have been unable to stop themselves with app timers. Many studies have likened these to cocaine addiction and I agree that this addiction causes similar craving. The difference is that narcotics increase our tolerance to dopamine and make us crave for larger doses of the substance whereas dopamine craving through screens causes a more gradual downfall.
Let me explain it with a simple example, Assuming that you spend x number of hours using a screen, each time you perceive a reward, in a like, a reaction, in some acknowledgement or score, you experience a dopamine high, as it wanes off, you choose to indulge yourself again. This becomes a vicious cycle and before you know it, you seem to have lost time in this “high”. It also helps to sweep under the carpet you need to work at, work through or work for including meaningful goals, health goals and growth centric practices. When I write I experience a dopamine high for sure. However it is a lot more effort than just staring at a screen and enjoying a meme or short video. Its simply the law of least effort. The high I get from the video is much higher with almost no effort as compared to writing where I need to engage several parts of my brain. The dopamine released in the writing is much less and often in alignment with the effort. This is the same when we need to read a book as opposed to watching a short video, when we study and score marks versus play a video game and this goes on also to internet pornography because it releases quick dopamine as opposed to a balance of oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine and testosterone/oestrogen that are needed in genuine intimate relationships. The dopamine craving makes us always seek the highs to the point the we tend to delude ourselves to believe that anything less than that screen induced high is mental illness. If I am not feeling high on dopamine, I am depressed or anxious is the biggest fallacy plaguing an entire generation of young people who are falling prey to the epidemic of internet diagnosis for a basic faulty lifestyle.
Dopamine detox is something I have followed very strictly for 11 years now. I am sharing a few of those techniques.
1. I use social media for exactly 30 minutes a day. I have retained only Facebook and come out of twitter and Instagram and the others basically because they are more dopamine rich or toxic. This is my personal commitment to my well being. You may need to find yours. Also I do not use social media to stay in touch with close friends or family. If the relationship matters I make calls once a week at least to communicate genuinely and work on the relationship. Social media is a platform for only work for me.
2. I use apps like WhatsApp only for very close contacts and am not on any groups. The groups on WhatsApp attract dopamine highs and cortisol high posts all the time. They are best to exit. Use the app for what it is really worth in your life. Anything more is toxic. WhatsApp groups are like social drinking practices that lead to full blown alcohol addiction. Be aware and quit when there is a need.
3. Once a week a complete dopamine detox is practiced. I do not go online at all and the WIFI remains switched off on that day. This makes way for boredom. This boredom helps recharge my creative channels and also appreciate mundane activities. In short what happens is that the deep boredom paves way for a simple activity that helps me appreciate the “high” in a mundane task and thereby regulate dopamine. The best example I can give is of someone who has the opportunity to eat exotic cuisines everyday for every meal being unable to feel satiated with simple rice and curd or dal. However, if I am hungry enough, the dal and rice will feel really good. Dopamine detox helps with that regulation.
4. No games online. If I need to play it is a physical sport even if it is going for a walk. I do not use my screens to note down anything. People who have worked with me have always seen me carrying a book to write on every time I have a great idea or something to add to the to do list. The key is to more actively engage and use parts of the brain that do not settle for the law of least effort.
5. I use the internet at times as reward for work well done. So if I have done some good work for a week, the end of the week gets a reward through some online activity like a great documentary or a music concert and more recently some good movie. For me staying away for a week or two is easy. However if you have used the internet more often, then you may need to reward yourself more often but for shorter periods of time till you are able to build the mental muscle to refrain from screens for longer periods of time. Before you diagnose yourself with chronic or acute conditions check if you have given yourself the balance needed for normal or optimal functioning. Try the detox, it really helps lead a balanced life where the practice of mindfulness becomes easier.