A couple of times per year, I combine vacation or summertime workcation with 30 days of digital detox a.k.a. a dopamine fast. Now I will do one parallell to work in October; my second one during Autumn season.
Like most, I expose myself to a lot of screen time in my work, and then more screen time when connecting with friends and colleagues over social media and keeping up on feeds. And once in a while, I watch a movie or mini-series online: more screen time, more blue light. No real pause or relaxation for my ancestral brain or the often-so-active-in-modern-city-life nervous system, either.
It has its pros and cons to live in digital, modern times. And many of us have a love-and-hate-relationship with our smart phones. They are designed to keeping us hooked. It can be difficult and a real challenge requiring real discipline these days when it comes to simple choices such as for example NOT opening the phone directly in the morning or NOT SCROLLING or checking notifications for God knows how many times, during the day. And of course, NOT checking the phone the last thing before going to sleep at night.
Whatever feelings or behavior we have in this regard, we can all benefit from taking small or longer breaks from the screens and their hormone-disrupting digital blue light exposure that tend to throw our circadian rhythms off course. Not to mention the "popcorn-brain"-impact all things digital have on us when we hop from social media to paying bills to purchasing home delivery-grocery bags, shopping technology, shoes, clothes, books or presents, reading news paper articles, doing research, comparing prices, perhaps booking trains or flights and concert tickets or making dinner reservations... The list goes on, and on. It's no wonder that digital detox retreats where you hand over your phone or tablet before entering, is now a thing increasing in popularity. Or that gaming or gambling is now (finally) confirmed as a 100% real addiction, for which children and adults can seek help, detox and professional rehabilitation.
Also, the reality of Addiction is this: it's one brain condition, with many outlets. But when focus is shifted into positive outlets and healthier habits such as finding flow, doing creative and meaningful work, engaging in human connection and nature, great things happen.
Back to the topic of nature Our need for spending time in nature is an innate part of us, since ancestral times. Whether the outdoor activity is brisk or slow walking, or just sitting in a forest or by the sea, in the jungle, or in your own garden: Simply being in nature and resting your eyes on the green colors of trees, meadows or mountains, will bring restorative and healing impact, boost your sleep, decrease anxiety and lift your mood. For example, time in nature (or 'forest bathing') will...
-lower stress and cortisol levels
-activate the rest-and-digest, feed-and-breed system -bring back balance and improve the overall mental and hormonal health and well-being We need these things. Because our innate systems are the same as they were about 12 000 years ago, while the modern world is not. Our brains are in more need now than ever of getting recurring nature breaks from the "normal" life of modern, digital exposure.
I struggle with it myself, living in Stockholm city. I love my home and my neighbourhood, and it's been a blessing to have grown up and to live here, but boy do I crave more nature in my life.
The solution – a potent tool
A solution for me when I feel like I'm not getting enough nature, engaging in a little too much screen time or simply feel like zoning out a bit from the constant information flow of social media, newsfeeds and all other things digital, is to cut myself off from SoMe for a month and do a dopamine reset.
It's become a proactive tradition even, to go offline for 30 days twice per year. And I love it!
It's challenging at first (due to withdrawal and habit), but very rewarding.
This Autumn, I will not engage in a full fast meaning I will still be using my laptop (because I have work to do, which I love, too). But I'll log out from the social media-platforms, starting now.
How it works
Our brains work hard every day to keep balanced when it comes to feel good-neurotransmitter dopamine and feeling the opposite, pain. Because they are both processed in the same parts of the brain. And our brains and innate systems will always, day by day, moment by moment, strive towards homeostasis. Optimum balance.
With the overload of dopamine-stimulating events, impressions, notifications that we engage with on a daily basis, the homeostasis in this part of the brain gets thrown off balance. This means that the brain's set point for pleasure changes negatively.
The brain adapts to the behavior of, for instance, checking your phone or scrolling your newsfeed. It does so by down-regulating the dopamine receptors, in other words stimulating fewer dopamine receptors each time this feel good neurotransmitter is secreted. The brain then tips towards feeling pain, or withdrawal. And the natural tendency is to avoid the uncomfortable pain and go back for more dopamine. Checking your phone, or scrolling your newsfeed.
By repeating the negative behavior for weeks or months, a pattern is created. This creates a growing non-homeostasis. Imbalance. Your brain will start to crave more dopamine hits, more reward/pleasure-stimulating outlets, otherwise the pain center in the brain gets activated and you feel unease. This is a biochemical state that can make you feel low, tired, restless, sleepless or unfocused, agitated, anxious or even depressed. No wonder why so many kids and grown-ups are hooked on their phones and laptops. We live in a culture where being a dopamine junkie has become the new "normal".
The benefits of doing a dopamine fast When you're experiencing withdrawal, it's tempting to reach for the source of instant dopamine secretion. But if you just stay with the feeling, sit with it and observe it, or choose to actively replace the bad habit with new and better ones like doing breathwork, taking a walk in nature or spending time with a friend or loved one, the withdrawal (the pain) will pass and go away.
Repeating THIS pattern instead of reaching for instant gratification, is the solution and the key. Because it opens the door to creating a fresh new start: it resets your dopamine levels. The balance and relationship between the pain –uncomfortable feelings– and the dopamine
–pleasurable feelings– finds harmony. And when no side of the two is tipping over, your optimum set point is restored.
The indulgence of digital addictions and their instant gratifications are drowning us in dopamine these days. But if we choose a bit of 'sobriety' now and then it can easily help us restore our levels.
All it takes is a bit of devotion and effort, and not caring so much what others may think. The bonus is that it opens up space for more connection. With oneself, with others, with nature too. And with new possibilities that require room to grow. They organically do, when we allow them. Also, who doesn't like a good old long-term-rewarding challenge?