Sonal Shah, 23, an independent web developer, remembers being on the verge of a breakdown in early 2021. “I have erratic work hours as a freelancer, and throughout the pandemic, I was stuck at home, working all the time. My screentime doubled, and I started getting fatigued easily,” she says. She read about dopamine fasting—a form of digital detox-- and decided to give it a shot. Switching off her phone and putting away all devices every weekend, she says that she has been feeling refreshed and is able to get back to work, rejuvenated.
With the arrival of the pandemic, everyone has been glued to their screens more than ever. Our phones and laptops have become our source of entertainment, livelihood and communication. For tech entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley engineers and programmers, this started to mean double the screen time than usual, which led to the idea of “Dopamine Fasting.”
The concept was created by California-based psychiatrist Dr Cameron Sepah in 2019. Dopamine fasting requires a person to avoid any kind of arousal, specifically from pleasure triggers. Anything that stimulates dopamine production is off-limits throughout this period. The idea is to ‘reset’ your neurochemical system by de-stimulating it.
“The six compulsive behaviours he cites as behaviours that may respond to a dopamine fast are emotional eating, excessive internet usage and gaming, gambling and shopping, porn and masturbation, thrill and novelty-seeking, and recreational drugs,” says Dr Fabian Almeida, Consultant Psychiatrist, Fortis Hospital, Kalyan, adding that dopamine fasting can be used to help control any behaviours that are negatively affecting your life,
Switching off from technology from time to time appears to have some tangible benefits. Ask Nitish Desai, 29, who works for a renowned media firm. Forced to spend over 120 hours of screentime on average during the week, he began feeling exhausted, he remembers.
“I had limited time for myself and my family,” he says, adding that it was leading to a lot of frustration. “I would also go so far as to say that it became an obsession rather than a compulsion, and that started worrying my family and peers,” he adds. So, he completely switched off three days a week and stopped looking at screens post working hours. Six months later, he reports feeling calmer, having lesser anxiety and better sleep.
However, psychiatrists also believe that this Silicon-valley fad is often taken too far. Lounge speaks to renowned psychiatrists and psychologists to clarify and understand the scientific validity of the concept to stop people from misusing or abusing it.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Most psychiatrists agree that the term dopamine fasting is a misnomer. Dopamine, one of the body’s neurotransmitters involved in the body’s reward, motivation, learning and pleasure, is essential to the body; fasting from it would be impossible and fatal to the brain.
Dr Almeida agrees. “Scientifically speaking, you can’t really ‘fast’ from a naturally occurring brain chemical. While dopamine does rise in response to rewards or pleasurable activities, it doesn’t actually decrease when you avoid over stimulating activities, so dopamine fasting doesn’t actually lower your dopamine levels.”
Therefore, there is a need to go beyond a temporary period of abstinence and learn about the possible triggers for addictive behaviours, relapse patterns, underlying emotional distress, the cues influencing our brain reward pathway, the social and psychological conditioning of our brain and the cognitive errors we practice.
A NOVEL CONCEPT OR A FAD?
Most psychiatrists and psychologists believe that dopamine fasting is nothing but old wine in a new bottle. It is a fancy, trendy term for something that psychiatrists and psychologists have been explaining, emphasising and effectively executing in our interactions with our patients and as interventions for their mental health problems, especially addiction.
Dr Parul Tank, Consultant Psychiatrist, Fortis Hospital, Mulund mentions, “Dopamine fasting is a fad started in the west wherein people abstain from any pleasurable activity to reduce dopamine levels in the brain. However, this is non-scientific and has no concrete evidence to it. Moreover, no detailed research has been done to establish its effectiveness.”
Shubhika Singh Chundawat, a Gurgaon-based Licensed Clinical Psychologist & Psychotherapist, concurs as she says that dopamine fasting is a new term given by the wellness industry to the old concept of mindfulness. “It is basically having a digital-free life and has become a concept that has been taken really far by people,” she says. “I have read that there are people who attempt dopamine fasting and abstain from all social contact - they don’t even look at each other and even avoid eye contact with others. This kind of a mindset of all or none is unhealthy, and one needs to maintain balance.”
TO DOPAMINE FAST OR NOT TO?
It is essential to understand the principle of fasting, an age-old tradition in our culture, precisely what is practised here. “The concept of fasting was to teach ourselves the art of self-regulation, be mindful of every possible addictive, be it food, sex, substance use, etc., and embrace the physiological changes the body undergoes, thereby allowing detox,” says Dr Venkatesh Babu, Consultant – Psychiatrist, Fortis Hospitals, Bangalore,
With evidence connecting dopamine and addiction, abstaining from a stimulant can be especially useful if one does not have the luxury of time, points out Dr Almeida. “Alcohol and drugs are one such example, where withdrawal management begins with complete abstinence of the addictive ingredient to stop the toxic effects immediately and speed up the recovery process,” he says. “We have to take extreme steps as ‘cutting out’ the addictive substance becomes urgent and often lifesaving, instead of just ‘cutting down.”
However, this may not always be necessary and can even be problematic. Dr Tank does point out that fasting, withdrawal from exercise, and stopping human interaction can be maladaptive. “One can connect with one’s inner self, using an internal motivation, and not deliberately fasting,” she warns.
She further advises that dopamine fasting needn’t be tried, although it is an interesting concept. “One can make a conscious decision of not watching too much phone or technology and trying to seek pleasure doing other activities like meditation, exercise, being with nature, talking to friends, etc.,” she says.
The easiest way to do this is by actively practising mindfulness and checking one’s behaviours before things go out of hand. “Allot time for things that you like doing and have self-checks to ensure that nothing is being overdone. Follow disciplined indulgence wherein you have a cap to the indulgence. Maintain a journal to help the process of self-awareness,” says Dr Singh.
After all, as Dr Alemeida points out, balance is key to living well. “If we make moderation the name of our game, life will get a whole lot easier.