Lay off the Dope


Dopamine that is…

Dopamine is a hormone produced in the brain.  It acts as a neurotransmitter which flows through your nervous system carrying messages between cells.  It also plays a big part in how we feel pleasure and helps us to focus and find things interesting.

Psychologically, because it is so closely linked to pleasure, dopamine has been linked to addiction and other destructive behaviors.  That pleasure you feel when you find something you really enjoy, isn’t always the thing itself, it’s the dopamine your brain releases in response.  And that good feeling dopamine is what leads to addictions of all types.  Couple that with the relaxation the comes from a hit of THC or the surge of adrenalin that comes from snorting cocaine and you have a potentially lethal combination.

In recent years, psychologist have also linked dopamine to other pleasurable behaviors.  One study showed a marked increase in dopamine every time young people received a new email, text message or social media notification.  No wonder our phones have become like appendages.

Because dopamine is so closely linked to anti-social smart phone addiction and destructive hedonistic behavior there has been a trend in recent years for some to experiment with a dopamine fast.  By cutting down on anything that brings pleasure, (food, sex, alcohol, social media) it is believed that you can reset your brain to better appreciate the little things.

This isn’t just trendy pseudo-science that millennials have adopted to help cut down on smart phone usage, its roots are a longstanding practice in addiction psychology.  Psychologist have been using dopamine fasting as treatment for drug and alcohol addiction for decades.  The mere anticipation of pleasure releases dopamine and creates a wanting in people, which then leads to compulsive behavior.  By removing the circumstances that trigger this wanting you can gradually bring down the desire and eventually reset the brain to find pleasure in other ways.  That’s why alcoholics stay out of bars, it’s the physical location itself that triggers the wanting and breaks the willpower to stay clean.

Why am I telling you this?

We live in a world where dopamine releasing behaviors are everywhere.  It’s not just drug addicts who are addicted to dopamine.  Smart phone and video game addiction are just as pervasive, if not more so.

In a report published in the American Economic Review, the journal of the American Economic Association, researchers found that deactivating social media accounts four weeks prior to the 2018 midterm elections resulted in subjects increase in socialization with friends and family, decrease in political polarization and an increase in overall subjective well-being.  But it wasn’t without difficulties, subjects reported classic symptoms of withdrawal in the first week, including depression and anxiety.  Even certain sounds, like the random chime of a bell or a vibration, triggered intense desire to go check their phones.

I began to notice some of these symptoms in myself about a year ago.  That’s when I imposed my own version of a dopamine fast.  I call it, taking a smart phone sabbath.  Once a week, for a month, I turned off my phone for 24 hours from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday to mirror the Jewish day of rest.  The results, though far from scientific, were remarkable.  The first few hours were the hardest but after I got over my initial urge to check my phone every few minutes, I found myself able to truly relax and unplug for the first time in years.  After that first month I stopped physically turning the phone off but now I am able to ignore it for several hours with no ill effects.

I am rarely on my phone after about 7:00 pm on weekdays or from Friday night to Monday morning.  When I start to feel the phone is controlling me, instead of the other way around, I turn it off altogether and go about my life.

These devices were originally designed to help us, not control us.  Lay off the dop(amine), and life your life.

 

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