Dopamine detox, self-binding, and more pleasure out of life

“The reason we’re all so miserable may be because we’re working so hard to avoid being miserable.”

– Anna Lembke, Dopamine Nation

In this part 2 of the Eat Not to Dullness series, I’ll discuss how to do a proper dopamine detox. I’ll also show you how to set up self-binding rules to prevent relapse, as well as how to make everyday things dopaminergic and bring color back to life.

All of the following tips are from doctors, as well as experienced detoxers.

Dopamine detox Pinterest Pin

(Disclosure: I may be slightly compensated if you purchase items I recommend through links on this page.)

Again, much of this article discusses sections from Medical Director of Stanford Addiction Medicine Anna Lembke’s book, Dopamine Nation. This article is very pared down, and there are lots more strategies and deep insights in the full book. If you find this article useful, buy her book for more.)

Dopamine Nation book cover

Quick recap of part one

In part one, I explained the pleasure-pain balance. We often sit on the “pleasure” side, but after a little while, gremlins hop on the “pain” side and soon outweigh us.

Here’s a graph, if you prefer it to my illustrations from part one.

As time goes on, anything good becomes toxic. This is hormesis.

Hormesis is the scientific term for why caffeine (a toxin!) is beneficial in small doses, but not a whole pot of dark coffee. You can also think of it as marginal utility.

The problem is, we often get stuck. Scrolling social media, playing another match, watching another video ’cause they recommend so many on the page. That’s when we move into the “toxic dose” part of the graph.

Our brains didn’t evolve for these superstimuli, for a world of abundance and not scarcity. So it’s hard to stop. Then you feel the brain buzz / depression / anger / guilt and shame of overconsuming content.

But instead of blaming the manufacturer, you must eat not to dullness. (the toxic dose) And one of the first steps is a dopamine detox.

The following are Big Ideas #3-5 from Dopamine Nation.

3. What is a dopamine detox?

A plate with the word "detox" spelled in letter blocks on it.

Simply put, it’s avoiding problematic, addictive sources of dopamine (the motivation neurochemical that enhances pleasure) for you, whatever they are, for 24 hours. Some people extend it for days, and some make it a lifestyle.

The goal is to reset your overloaded, sensitized synapses. This takes time, so I don’t recommend the 24-hour “time theorist” mode on this page. If you’re heavily addicted, it won’t do much in the long-term.

Dr. Cameron Sepah, inventor of dopamine fasting (renamed “dopamine detox” after some neophytes ascetically endangered themselves through a misunderstanding of “fast”), identifies these six in his clinically-proven manifesto:

  • Pleasure eating (that is, processed or junk food)
  • Internet / gaming
  • Gambling / shopping
  • Porn / masturbation
  • Thrill / novelty-seeking (exercise is fine, but not riding rollercoasters)
  • Recreational drugs

Think of it like a food detox: you don’t stop eating food! Just the unhealthy ones!

“…we are always releasing dopamine at a kind of tonic baseline rate and it’s the deviation from that baseline rather than hits of dopamine in a vacuum that make a difference.”

– Anna Lembke, Dopamine Nation

For tech addiction purposes, this means no electronic screens. No phone, tablet, computer, television, smartwatch, GPS, etc. I’d also argue no radio or listening to music.

But as I’ve said many times, elimination won’t work. Substitute to fill the void or you will fail!

And in this case, you’ll get bored of staring at a wall anyway.

So absolutely…

  • cook
  • exercise, take a walk outside, yoga, etc.
  • meditate
  • take a relaxing bath (cold is not allowed — see point #5)
  • talk to other people!
  • play an instrument / create art / journal or write
  • read books / magazines, etc.
  • clean your house / car

The goal of a dopamine detox is to lower your hedonic setpoint back to normal expectations. Feeding the monster less junk food, less often, and substituting healthier foods will make it crave the junk food less, which it got little pleasure out of anyway since you gave it that all the time.

“Addiction is a progressive narrowing of the things that bring you pleasure.”

– Andrew Huberman, professor of neurobiology at Stanford School of Medicine

A dating man and woman talk near the sea. Woman: "If we were in that constant state of excitement, right?" Man: "We would end up doing nothing at all with our lives." From the film Before Sunset.
© Warner Brothers Pictures 2003 (Before Sunset)

Is a dopamine detox a fad / cultish?

Some detoxers do go to extremes and endanger themselves.

Don’t be ascetic. Remember: less junk food (artificial, supernormal hits of dopamine) and more healthy food, but not no food.

The length is different for everyone. Hardcore, rock-bottom addictions may take 30 days or more (Lembke’s clinical experience: the sun comes out at week 3), but for some people, one day will do the trick.

Ultimately, it’s about reducing the “brain buzz,” bringing color back to life, understanding if you have a wound in validation or loneliness, etc., and maybe thinking about your priorities and how to go forward.

(Sometimes we play video games, watch YouTube or Netflix, or scroll social media because we’re waiting for our passion to hit us in the face and wake us out of a stupor. You’ll find it, or at least a direction to go, when you dopamine detox.)

Even if it means going to live alone in a cabin in Norway for six weeks, Walden-style, just to be safe.

A rustic rentable cabin in the mountains.
Better bring lots of reading material.

And remember,

You will feel worse before you get better. So throw every urge surfing strategy you can at it.

And if your phone is your “security blanket,” invest in a time-locked Kitchen Safe (smartphone safe). It’s a basically-indestructible container with a time-lock like a kitchen timer, and you’d need a bunch of tools to pry it open. Great for dropping your smartphone in for a few days, or a game controller, computer mouse, TV remote… (you won’t NEED it, right?).

It also has NO MANUAL OVERRIDE. Here’s a video of it in action.

A ghoul chases a running man. The man is labeled "Me on dopamine detox." The ghoul is labeled "The overwhelming desire to do bad things and stop the detox."

But detoxing sounds so boring!

You’ll find something to do, and you’ll prefer it to boredom. Even cleaning. Trust me.

“Boredom is not just boring. It can also be terrifying. It forces us to come face-to-face with bigger questions of meaning and purpose. But boredom is also an opportunity for discovery and invention. It creates the space necessary for a new thought to form, without which we’re endlessly reacting to stimuli around us, rather than allowing ourselves to be within our lived experience.”

– Anna Lembke, Dopamine Nation

Here’s what you’ll get out of pushing through the boredom (one Redditor’s experience)

Dopamine detox benefits: calmer, make better decisions, less anxious, the Joy Of Missing Out, reconnecting with friends, little things are gratifying again

4. Self-binding

Odysseus tied to the mast as the sirens call. Here, they're labeled Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, News, YouTube, Netflix, and Instagram.
Sirens go by many names.

Metaphorically or literally, this does not involve a straitjacket.

To cite Anna Lembke again, in an interview with Dr. Andrew Huberman, she said

“Think of literal physical and metacognitive barriers that you can put between yourself and your phone or whatever… to create these intentional spaces where you’re not constantly interrupting yourself essentially and distracting yourself.”

– ibidem

In other words, introduce friction. Insert as many steps as possible between trigger and reward.

A time-locked smartphone safe, any urge surfing strategy, or a website / app blocker. (blockers page to be updated soon, still excellent)

The most effective step for me is to remember My Why. That’s why I made a simple 4-question worksheet to help you discover yours and to stick near your computer, beside your door, wherever, so you never forget. (or read the article here)

You can also invest in a dumbphone (flip phone), and use it for everything except necessary apps. Sometimes classes in school insist on Whatsapp, for example, or your job made an app to notify you of changes to your start time.

Keep the smartphone with those apps (and nothing else!) in the bottom of a box in the garage, or somewhere else that takes time to get to. Lost it? Call it from your dumbphone.

Or you can have a gaming computer and one that can’t run crap. Leave the gaming one unplugged. Or only game with friends (on a console) to encourage social interaction. Get creative!

Because you now know about the pleasure-pain balance and that spiffy graph near the top of this article, you can set rules for how much time to spend on your vice of choice.

  • 2 hours, or 20 minutes?
  • 1 day a week, or 3? (examples)

But if they’re too potent and hard to pull away from, you’ll have to avoid it. Remember mindful tech question #2?

Mindful tech questions series #2: How easy will it be to stop using this technology?

If it ain’t, don’t.

“To reset your dopamined brain, first abstain.”

– Anna Lembke, Dopamine Nation

5. Pain as a pathway to pleasure

In a dopamine detox, you push on the pain side of the balance, which can lead to its opposite, pleasure. Remember, the brain wants to keep level. In fact,

“With intermittent exposure to pain, our natural hedonic set point gets weighted to the side of pleasure, such that we become less vulnerable to pain and more able to feel pleasure over time.”

– ibidem

As the saying goes, no pain, no gain.

Here are some examples, like the dopamine detox, that push on the pain side yet end in reward:

As for exercise, I’ve used it myself when I’m feeling low, and the endorphins (pleasure gremlins?) were my motivation to endure momentary pain. If you remember you’ll get pleasure after pain, it’s easier to commit to a digital detox or anything else.

Of course, this means that the more you pursue pleasure, the more pain you’ll have in the long run. So choose your dragon or have your dragon chosen for you.

Scales on a balance. One is labeled pain, the other pleasure.

“Pursuing pain instead of pleasure is also counter-cultural, going against all the feel-good messages that pervade so many aspects of modern life. Buddha taught finding the Middle Way between pain and pleasure, but even the Middle Way has become adulterated by the tyranny of convenience. Hence we must seek pain out and invite it into our lives.”

– Anna Lembke, Dopamine Nation

The more pain you endure now, the more pleasure you’ll receive later. The more pleasure you have now, the more pain you’ll receive later.

Dopamine detox: the takeaway

In this eat not to dullness / pleasure-pain balance series, we explored how when you hop on the pleasure side of the balance, pain gremlins inevitably hop on the pain side. (Hormesis graph near top)

I also explained why everything gets worse as time goes on, and how doing a dopamine detox acts like an eviction notice to those lingering gremlins.

Self-binding prevents or minimizes the gremlins by inserting friction. A Kitchen Safe is an unyielding tool to drop your smartphone, game controller, computer mouse, TV remote, etc. in for a few days, if you dare.

And lastly, just as pleasure leads to pain via opponent process, so too does pain lead to pleasure.

Remember, dopamine is the motivation, anticipation, cravings chemical. So…

“Pursue rewards, but understand that the pursuit is actually the reward, if you want to have repeated wins. Then what you realize is your capacity to… tap into dopamine as a motivator, not just seeking dopamine rewards, that is infinite.”

– Dr. Andrew Huberman

"Happiness is a journey, not a destination." - The Buddha

Eat not to dullness series

Part one: The pleasure / pain balance
Part two: Dopamine fasting, self-binding, and more pleasure out of life

Dopamine detox, self-binding, and more pleasure out of life

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