So much of what we do in life boils down to what’s going on in our bodies.
Whether we’re shopping on Amazon, binge-watching our favorite show, or getting pumped about the newest season of clothes, our drive to engage in certain behaviors is largely influenced by our brain chemistry. Specifically, we seek out things that make us feel good.
There are a few neurotransmitters responsible for enjoyable experiences: Serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine are well-known players in our brain’s attempts to avoid pain and find pleasure. Dopamine specifically is a neurotransmitter that’s characterized by feelings of reward.
In recent years, some scientists have noted that our culture is one that prizes dopamine-fueled activities such as scrolling on social media, shopping, and gambling. Some argue that we’ve become addicted to getting a dopamine high, making us more tolerant of it and therefore seeking rewards constantly and expecting them instantaneously.
Yet that addiction can lead to constant cravings, never feeling like you have enough of things, and a desire for more. When we expect immediate gratification, especially as a way to cover up uncomfortable feelings, including boredom, we’re actually harming ourselves in the long run.
That’s why “dopamine detoxing” has become a phenomenon.
What Is Dopamine Detoxing?
Simply put, it’s the process of weaning yourself off of all dopamine-boosting activities such as gambling, TV, and social media for a period of time, in order to break your dependency on them.
It’s a term that shouldn’t be taken literally, as you can’t technically get addicted to dopamine. However, it’s helpful to cut out some of your dopamine-fueled activities so you can become less dependent on chasing immediate gratification, often at the expense of your health and peace. For example, scrolling on social media boosts dopamine, but it also splinters our attention, makes us more anxious, and wastes time.
Besides “detoxing” from dopamine, you can also replace unhealthy dopamine-boosting activities with healthy ones and do so at a measured pace so you’re not chasing that dopamine high.
In this article, you’ll see that recreational drugs aren’t the source of every addiction: Sugar, shopping, and many other vices can easily bring out compulsive behavior. You’ll also learn how to reset dopamine levels.
#1: Ditch Social Media
It’s been said over and over, but it’s worth repeating here: Social media, while great at keeping us connected, is highly addictive, can lead to negative feelings and self-image, and is a time-waster that is guaranteed to zap your creative energy. No doubt you have — like most of us — been disappointed in yourself when you realize hours went by and you still haven’t started that project, organized your room, or whatever else you should have been doing.
Don’t beat yourself up — the high you get while scrolling is real. It’s natural and extremely common to crave that time on TikTok or Instagram. We’re primed to feel pleasure when we see that like, read that comment, or see pictures of our friend’s smiling faces.
It’s important to know what you’re up against — a powerful, dopamine-seeking drive to scroll. Yet the more you use it, the more you want. So, try cutting down on your use.
#2: Curb Your Online Shopping Habit
It wasn’t that long ago when we had to leave our house to go shopping. Finding new treasures was a treat, like stumbling upon an amazing antique or gorgeous dress you didn’t expect in a thrift store or mall. Now, whatever it is we’re looking for, we can find it almost immediately. All it takes is a Google search.
Saw your favorite influencer sporting a cool hat? Saw a stunning outfit in a T.V. show? With a few minutes of searching on Amazon, Etsy, or your favorite online shop, we can find something similar if not the exact same thing. Before we know it, our carts are full and just waiting for us to click purchase. As we anticipate our new treats, our brains start pumping out dopamine.
Unfortunately, we’re becoming more and more desensitized to this feeling. And what’s missing here is the concept of delayed gratification. The next time you click away from a site to visit one of those shops with ads that are always following you around, take a pause. Is this item really that special or will you just want something else in a few days?
You don’t have to own everything nice you see, and when you can, nothing you buy ever seems truly special. You’d be better off using your online shopping time to be mindful in the moment, stay focused on work, or get your creative juices flowing.
#3: Get Enough Sleep
Like many things in the wellness world, staying healthy is often very simple. Getting a good night’s sleep will help you regulate dopamine levels — studies even show that sleep deprivation reduces dopamine receptors and availability.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, make sure you get on a regular sleep cycle — going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Try to get sunlight first thing in the morning to regulate the hormone melatonin, and get enough exercise. You can also try supplementing with magnesium before bed and breathwork.
#4: Replace One Netflix Episode with Meditation
Believe it or not, binge-watching a show is also associated with a dopamine high. There’s nothing like disappearing into a story for hours, getting completely hooked on the storyline and characters, and forgoing that early bedtime you set for yourself. This is a widespread phenomenon: 73% of people surveyed by Netflix feel good after binge-watching a show.
However, binge-watching can reduce how much sleep you get, interfere with your other projects such as creative activities, and can even act as a band-aid for uncomfortable feelings so you avoid processing them.
While you don’t need to quit watching your favorite show, have some limits. An easy way to do this is to reduce your time watching by one show and replace it with meditation. This is ideal to do before bed.
A meditation practice is always advisable, as there are countless benefits, from helping you be more mindful to processing emotions, relaxing the mind before bed, and connecting to your intuition. While a Netflix show might feel more pleasurable, a meditation session will serve you better in the long run.
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#5: Get Rid of Sugary Treats
If you find yourself fiending for sugar on a stressful day, you’re not alone. Sugar is an extremely addictive substance, and yes, it also increases dopamine. No wonder you can’t stop thinking about dessert. However, as any sugar addict will tell you, the more you have, the more you want. So caving into temptation does nothing to help you regulate your dopamine addiction, and it also can lead to weight gain, anxiety, and inflammation.
Sometimes the best way to reduce a dopamine trigger is to simply cut it out of your life. So, don’t keep treats around the house. When you find yourself having cravings, reach for fruit, such as raspberries and blueberries, instead. Alternatively, you could opt for Greek yogurt with honey.
Better yet, train yourself to be better about sitting with uncomfortable cravings. You don’t have to act out every craving, and they don’t tend to last for long. This can help you gradually regulate your dopamine levels, as well as give you practice in the invaluable practice of self-restraint. It’s also helpful to have an alternative activity to turn to when a craving hits.
#6: Replace Bad Habits with Exercise
Taking something that feels good away goes against our brain’s desire to seek out pleasurable experiences. In a way, it goes against our nature. That means you should have a few go-to activities that you can easily engage in when you’re on the verge of binging Netflix, scrolling, or succumbing to tasty treats.
Exercise is an obvious and easy solution. Whether you roll out the yoga mat, head out for a run, or hit the trail, you can easily shift your attention away from temptation, shift your mood for the better, and take great care of your body. What’s not to love about that?
#7: Try Vagus Nerve Stimulation
If you haven’t heard about the vagus nerve by now, it’s the longest cranial nerve in the body that goes from your brain stem right down through your torso. It regulates the autonomic nervous system and acts as a brake to slow your system down, helping you to rest, digest, and engage in positive social experiences.
The nerve plays a role in dopamine pathways that regulate our sense of rewards, and since it helps you drop into deep relaxation, you will have all the more mental and emotional energy to fuel your creative success.
#8: Get a Massage
Do you consider massage to be a luxury or a treat? While many view it that way, regular massages can be instrumental to keeping us happy and healthy in a stressful world. And if you’re trying to increase dopamine levels naturally, without turning to harmful behaviors, a massage is one of your best options.
There is evidence to show that a massage can increase dopamine levels in addition to serotonin. Plus, it lowers the harmful stress hormone cortisol, which has been associated with dangerous belly fat and a number of other negative health effects.
If you’re struggling with cravings to shop or binge social media, make an appointment for a massage. It’s a healthier option that will leave you feeling blissed out and with ample energy to put toward what really matters.
#9: Take a Cold Shower
For some, the idea of willingly enduring a cold shower is about as appealing as walking barefoot in the snow. But if you want a quick alternative to a more harmful dopamine-seeking activity, a cold shower just might do the trick.
In a prominent study, researchers found that immersion in 57-degree water increased levels of dopamine by 250%. Cold water therapy has been associated with better moods, better sleep, and more energy balanced with a greater ability to relax. For all of these reasons, a cold shower in the morning might set you up for a day in which you can focus more clearly on what’s truly valuable to you.
#10: Do a 30-Day Fast of a Guilty Pleasure
Taking inspiration from “dopamine fasting,” you can pick any (or all) of the activities that typically fuel that chase for dopamine and cut it out completely for a month. Setting a time limit will give you some structure and will help alleviate any fears you have about going cold-turkey. You’re only doing this for a month, after all.
Whether it’s a digital detox, a sugar-free month, or a no-spend month, you can more effectively regulate your brain chemistry by cutting out those habits that keep you chasing a dopamine high. And when cravings hit, you can hone your ability to sit with discomfort and watch it pass, reinforcing your ability to immediately seek gratification. At the very least, you can replace bad habits with more positive, healthy dopamine-boosting activities like exercise and meditation.
#11: Listen to Music
Finally, boost dopamine and fuel creativity at the same time by listening to music. Music boosts the neurotransmitter along with helping us problem-solve and come up with creative ideas. There are so many other benefits to music too, including reducing stress, shifting our moods, and motivating us to exercise.
You Can Take Control of Your Behavior
We live in a culture of instant gratification, and that can make it easy to turn to addictive activities like shopping and binge-watching TV. Our brains are primed to seek pleasure via dopamine, so it makes sense that we gravitate to these dopamine-boosting activities. However, often we end up feeling out of control with those behaviors. We keep scrolling even when we know we need to sleep, and we keep buying when we’re already over our budget.
In order to have the energy and time we need to fulfill our biggest life purpose, we need to turn to healthier methods of boosting dopamine or even cut out our dopamine-boosting altogether for a period of time. We can learn the power of delayed gratification and of using uncomfortable feelings as fuel for our creative projects and life purpose. Here’s to taking back control of your behavior and your life!