The Truth Behind The 'Dopamine Detox' Trend
It's important to understand the science behind dopamine moderation before jumping into a full-fledged detox.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 24, 2023
Thanks to pop psychology's "hijacking" of a legitimate therapeutic method, most people today know a "dopamine detox" or "dopamine fast" as a quick cure-all for their mental health problems.
Here's how a dopamine detox typically goes:
- An individual accrues a number of bad lifestyle habits over time (like sleeping insufficiently, overeating junk food or partying excessively)
- Their unhealthy habits slowly start to catch up to them, and they begin to feel low, anxious and uninspired
- They come across a social-media influencer or self-help guru who convinces them that things will change for the better once they take a break from all things pleasurable — a.k.a., do a "dopamine detox"
- Although frustrating, the individual avoids all pleasurable activities to commit to the detox
- Repeat 1
Before we dive in any further, here are a few things to know about dopamine and its role in keeping us healthy.
First, dopamine is a neurotransmitter — which means that its function is to help our brain cells communicate with each other. Specifically, dopamine helps in regulating our mood, learning, body movements, sleep, and concentration. Because of its involvement in the brain's reward system, it is released when we have pleasurable experiences like having sex, eating a pizza or window shopping.
It's also important to understand that dopamine itself doesn't produce any feelings of pleasure. Rather, it simply reinforces the link between activities we find enjoyable and the experience of pleasure.
According to Dr. Cameron Sepah, who originally designed dopamine detox as a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, it is meant to put restrictions on the behaviors we are addicted to, not pleasure as a blanket emotion. Becoming mindful of the things we are addicted to reveals our impulses to ourselves, and helps us transcend our unhealthy patterns of behavior.
Armed with this knowledge, let's reframe what we know about dopamine detoxes:
Behavior Detox Is A More Accurate Term Than Dopamine Detox, As It Specifically Targets 6 Types Of Impulsive Behavior
Since dopamine is neither toxic, addictive nor pleasurable in itself, the term "dopamine detox" is somewhat of a misnomer. This doesn't mean that there aren't harmful consequences associated with higher levels of dopamine in the brain. For instance, one 2014 study published in Psychology and Neuroscience found that dopamine can contribute to aggressive behavior and risk-taking behavior, specifically in competitive contexts.
That said, the cognitive behavioral therapy form of "detoxing" from dopamine has nothing to do with the potentially harmful effects of dopamine. Rather, as a 2021 study published in Lifestyle Medicine explains, a dopamine detox is best suited to control six impulsive behaviors. They are:
- Emotional eating
- Internet or gaming
- Gambling or shopping
- Porn or masturbation
- Thrill or novelty-seeking behaviors
- Recreational drug use
The idea behind a dopamine detox, then, is to reduce the frequency and intensity of these impulsive behaviors by restricting or avoiding them for a certain period of time. This can help weaken the association between the behavior and reward, thus restoring behavioral flexibility and control.
Once this flexibility and control is established, the priority is to keep a check on how one indulges in the once-impulsive behavior.
Psychology is frequently oversimplified. Complex ideas are commonly misrepresented to appeal to a wider audience. Depriving yourself of all pleasurable activity through a dopamine detox is an extreme step and could make you feel worse. If you are battling an addiction to a certain behavior, speak to a mental health practitioner to understand the best path forward.