Psychologists Say We All Need to “Detox” Dopamine–Here’s What You Need to Know

if you use technology on a regular basis, you probably need this
Source: Marcus Aurelius | Pexels
Source: Marcus Aurelius | Pexels

I knew there was something wrong when I couldn’t take a hot girl walk without a podcast, meal prep without a YouTube vlog, or spend a Friday night at home without a Netflix binge. Realizing you can’t go a few minutes without checking Instagram, email, or Slack is a sad reality check, but one I desperately needed. With the rise of iPhone addictions and constant connection comes a wellness trend that promises to counteract. Dopamine detoxes are gaining popularity for their promise to erase–or at least help–the damage that technology can do to our mental health. Keep reading to learn the ins and outs of a dopamine detox: what it is, why it’s so appealing (and challenging), and how it could change your relationship with technology for the better.



What is a Dopamine Detox?

Before we get into the detox, let’s talk about what you’re detoxing. Known as the “feel-good” hormone, dopamine plays a key role in our reward system and is released by the brain whenever we experience something pleasurable, causing us to pursue that feeling all the more. But our brains operate with greater complexity, and dopamine isn’t the only factor contributing to our mental and emotional well-being. Dr. Anna Lembke, a psychiatry professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, noted in an article for TIME that because of digital media’s addictive nature, we’re experiencing a near-constant stream of dopamine release. To compensate, Dr. Lembke cited that our brains “downregulate our own dopamine production and transmission, to bring it back to baseline,” creating a dopamine deficit that can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

Enter: the dopamine detox or fast. Created by California psychiatrist Dr. Cameron Sepah, the dopamine fast is based on cognitive behavioral therapy, a psycho-social intervention tool used to treat mental health conditions. According to Harvard Health, the goal of dopamine fasting is to allow yourself to lean into boredom and loneliness. Rather than looking for near-instantaneous solutions—and giving into the reward-inducing cues of modern stimuli (texts, emails, notifications, etc.)—we can experience a reset. In other words, we can regain a greater sense of control over our lives and are better equipped to address compulsive behaviors instead of living in a constant state of automatic response. Reaching for the things that provide us with a boost of dopamine is akin to living life on a hamster wheel, and taking an intentional reset to rethink unhealthy habits can boost productivity, creativity, focus, and (most importantly) happiness. 

FYI, because the brain continuously produces dopamine, the term “detox” is misleading—we can never truly rid ourselves of the hormone. The goal is not to detoxify dopamine but to detoxify the external factors we’re subconsciously using for a dopamine boost. 


How to Do a Dopamine Detox

Each person’s approach to and experience doing a dopamine detox will look different (because “feeling good” looks different to all of us, and therefore the feel-good hormone will be different as well), but the goal is to make decisions from mindfulness, rather than impulse. think of it as a reset. Use the following steps to guide your detox:

1. Identify the focus of your detox.

In order to do a dopamine detox, you need to identify where the source of your compulsive behaviors is coming from. Depending on your needs, this can be anything from social media to video games to online shopping. Take time to reflect in your journal about what area of your life you’d like to address. For example, do you feel like you have to watch something on TV or on your phone whenever you’re eating? Do you check Instagram or TikTok every so often out of habit? 


2. Structure your detox in a way that feels supportive, not restricting.

The goal is to be aware of behaviors that are holding you back without being judgmental. TIME put it best: “If you keep your expectations in check, you may find that a digital detox is a useful tool for self-reflection.” In other words, the goal should be understanding your habits so that you can make positive changes in your life, rather than judging yourself for having them in the first place. Make a plan on what you want to practice and what boundaries you want to set with your technology. This can mean not engaging in one or multiple behaviors for a couple of days or limiting when and for how long you use them. Determine what feels right for you.


3. Do the detox!

Once you make a plan such as not using technology while eating or only checking your email twice a day, try introducing healthy habits in place of engaging in impulsive behaviors. For example, if you have a tendency to be on your phone during work breaks, try going for a walk instead. Or if your default is to watch hours of TV at the end of the day, pull out a book, or schedule a workout class. 


My Experience 

Because dopamine detoxes can target a range of behaviors, I chose to narrow down my approach to help focus my seven-day detox. Through journaling, I identified social media use, my phone in general, and email as compulsive behaviors I engaged in for that quick dopamine hit. These were my guidelines:

  • I turned off all notifications on my phone and computer.
  • I could only check email three times a day (morning, afternoon, and at the end of the work day) for a maximum of 30-45 minutes.
  • My phone was turned off from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. I could only check texts and any social media three times a day (morning, afternoon, and evening).

For the sake of brevity, I won’t recount my (at times, harrowing) journal entries reflecting on the week-long experience. But I’ll share what I learned:


It gets worse before it gets better.

If you’ve done other kinds of detoxes before, you know this well. In many ways, when I reduced my consumption of my dopamine triggers, my craving became all the more pronounced in the first two days. But if you stick through it, you’ll find that your automatic inclination to reach for your phone every time you experience a moment of silence lessens.


I experienced the joy of boredom.

On that note, this is one of the first concrete benefits I noticed during my detox: I actually experienced boredom. Truly, I can’t remember feeling bored anytime after getting my first Motorola Razr in the 6th grade. Outside the windows when I could check my phone or social media, I was forced to get creative and tap into what I really wanted at the moment. Sometimes, it was reading while other times it was a silent walk


I learned more about myself.

Rather than distracting myself during these periods of quietness, I chose to look inward. I often turned to my journal and even revived my meditation practice to connect deeper with myself. While I understood it in theory, my dopamine detox provided the proof: The answers really do exist within ourselves.


Being realistic is crucial.

While some may say that you need to completely rid your routine of your triggers to experience the benefits of a dopamine detox, I’m of the opinion that being a little lenient with yourself (as well as the strict definition of “detox”) can lead to greater success and insight. Going into the experience with the goal and expectation of getting to know yourself better means that you don’t have to go cold turkey. Instead, take note of what feels realistic for your routine and structure your detox in a way that feels both supportive and expansive.


Mindfulness is key.

The biggest takeaway should be this: A dopamine detox—like anything we do for our mental and emotional well-being—is a deeply personal experience. Only you can identify what may be holding you back and the healthy habits you want to carry along your path of growth. A dopamine detox isn’t glamorous and it isn’t a quick-fix solution. Instead, it reminds us that everything is a juggling act between balance and priority. What I learned from doing a dopamine detox is that we can have our cake and eat it too—as long as we do so mindfully.