Dopamine fasting is the latest booming trend in Silicon Valley. What is it, should you do one, and how should you start?
What is a dopamine fast?
Let's start by understanding dopamine. Dopamine is a brain chemical that is tied to behaviors such as arousal, reinforcement, motivation. For example, when you give a biscuit (stimulus) to a dog to reward them for sitting when asked, you are training the dopamine system. Likewise when you respond to the ping on your cell phone telling you a text just came in. In fact, all behaviors that have a stimulus —> response —> reward are related to dopamine. Dopamine is therefore the background mechanism behind habits, addictions, and more.
A dopamine fast is an extended state where we choose to deprive this system of its most common stimuli, for a variety of reasons/perceived benefits including greater focus, more control, and more mindfulness. The theory is that our bodies are "overstimulated" by a world that includes always-on technology, always-available food, and countless advertisements, blogs, and other uses of our time. And that removing ourself from these stimuli temporarily will rebalance our sensitivity and make us calmer, and more in control.
Why is dopamine fasting getting so much attention?
The term "dopamine fasting" was coined by Cameron Sepah in this popular linkedin article, where he describes a set of rules such as limiting talking, eating, technology, adrenaline-seeking behaviors, and drugs ranging from caffeine to cocaine.
I don't totally agree with the term dopamine fasting, and I could quibble about some specifics of how Cameron suggests we do a fast, but there is no doubt he has synthesized an extraordinarily compelling idea that we will be hearing more about in the coming months. Why?
- Fasting has become more mainstream. A digital detox is a "fast", as is intermittent fasting. A dopamine fast combines elements of these two fasts, with a little sprinkle of mindfulness and silent retreat thrown in. It's now acceptable to fast.
- Most people I know are struggling with some form of internet, phone, or social media addiction. Going cold turkey can bring awareness to these addictions and lead to more conscious choices around their use.
- Cameron emphasizes that this is something that can be done right now - it is accessible, modular, and personalized. You make up your own rules and do it for a time of your choosing.
I have another term for dopamine fast. It's called "true rest"; probably best exemplified by either a silent retreat or a couple of hours in a sensory deprivation tank. What Cameron has done is to let you know it's ok to do a modified version of this on your own time. Dopamine fasting equally captures the silent retreat, the sensory deprivation tank, and the quiet evening in your own room at home.
How I decided it was time for a dopamine fast.
💡 On the seventh day, he seized from work and rested
Quite simply I decided to do a dopamine fast because I was burned out!
It wasn't something I could articulate that clearly, but after a few weeks of dealing with wildfires, work disappointments, and the regular stresses of life, I noticed I was really irritable - an irritability that went beyond being solved by modulating caffeine or trying to sleep more.
Then, due to some lucky circumstances, I was able to cancel a work trip - so instead of being in Chicago, I was free at home - and nobody was expecting me at work for 24 hours or so.
I quickly checked out some formal silent retreats such as those offered by Spirit Rock and SilentStay, but that involved some significant driving and didn't work for my narrow time window. But I knew I still needed...something. So I took a shower, packed a bag, and headed out to a retreat center in Sebastopol armed with a loose knowledge of the rules of the game.
My dopamine fast rules
No talking. I did my fast in absolute silence. My final words to my wife and kids were "don't talk to me for 24 hours", then I headed into my car. I had no interactions with anyone during this time.
Minimal & bland eating. I didn't want to be overly distracted by food or headaches, so this wasn't the time for me to set an intermittent fasting record or to cut everything to zero. I went in well fed, ate a little bit of almond butter during the fast, and had a light cup of coffee towards the end.
No electronics. I took this very seriously. It wasn't just about turning off my cell phone. It was about hiding it in the glove compartment of my car, wrapped up, so that it didn't even seem remotely accessible. No GPS, not even any artificial light. I lit candles and a fire to get by.
Release the grip of time. Time is great when you have to be somewhere, otherwise it's pretty constraining. I figured that around a day or so I would know just from looking outside roughly when things should be wrapping up. Releasing the grip of the clock allowed me to be more in touch with my body's natural energetic cycles. There were clocks at my retreat but none of them were accurate.
No reading. I often read to learn. I decided not to read because learning is part of the dopamine reward system.
Gentle movement only. I workout pretty intensely virtually every day, enjoying a great endorphin rush and sense of accomplishment. This is clearly dopamine driven so no heavy exercise for me.
Slow the movie down. Without engaging too much effort, I decided to slow everything down. This meant everything from walking at half my normal speed, to taking longer pauses between when a thought appeared and when/if I did something about it.
Emergent not directed. I've read that some people do a dopamine fast with very specific goals, like improving a business plan. Goal directed behavior felt dopamine-related so I decided to let the process evolve naturally.
A rough outline of what happened
My fast took place starting 2pm on a Monday, at a retreat center where I was the only person present.
Chapter 1: digital detox and responsibility guilt
Within about two minutes of driving off, my addiction to technology pounced. I mostly wanted to turn on Waze so that the driving instructions were on auto-pilot, but more generally wanted to just turn on my phone to see "what was up". I reminded myself of Alan Watts' famous quote:
💡 "We are all addicts, and doing is our fix"
With some mindfulness, I tried to just be aware of this tendency, and keep in my senses while watching the world around me.
I also noticed how much I wanted to rush to get to the retreat center quickly. Even though honestly it didn't matter since I had suspended time, was well fed, and there was really nothing expected of me.
The second detox was - responsibility. I felt waves of guilt for leaving my wife alone with the kids, for not being "available" in case someone from work needed to reach me, or in case there was some other unplanned emergency. This was obviously irrational for a few reasons: a) I was doing all this with my family's blessing, and presumably would come back "better"/healed which was better for everyone. b) nobody at work was expecting me. c) Nothing is really going to happen that I can't solve 24 hours later.
Overall the first hours were about going through an experience of letting go. It was pretty uncomfortable but not unlike other silent retreats I had done.
Chapter 2: the desperate need to "do something"
💡 We are human beings, not human doings
When I got to the center, I felt the need to be doing something. Once I had a glass of water, a blanket, and my journal, I sat and waited to see what came up...which is best described as "verbal diarrhea". It was mostly me thinking about dopamine fasting, and how it compared to plain rest, and what it really meant. My mind was active, and every 2-3 minutes I was picking up my journal to record the next thought.
Journaling was helpful, it took the thoughts out of my mind and onto a place they would be babysat. Eventually, after an hour or two of this, the space in between journal writes lengthened, and I settled down to a more relaxed pace.
Chapter 3: actually getting in touch with the present and the land. A hidden to-do list.
At this point I was probably several hours in (I didn't know for sure because of the time suspension).
As my thoughts slowed and sun set, I began to notice all the changes around me in nature. "This is what it might be like to live on a farm" I thought to myself...and I simply listened. I found a quiet perch on the roof, and sat there for some time. At some point I lit a fire inside and some candles (remember, no artificial light for me). I opened a window and listened to some cars go by. And several times I nodded off. I meditated a bit, less formally and more just being in touch with my body and surroundings. I greatly enjoyed the fire.
I still had periodic journal writes. Mostly this felt like uncovering deep items on a some hidden "to do" list - things I maybe thought I needed to do, but were buried beneath the urgent and day to day. I made notes of these in my journal to be babysat. In hindsight, one of the most powerful elements of my fast was uncovering these little nagging and subconscious "shoulds". They've since moved to a different list and I'm considering whether to do anything about them.
Chapter 4: Hunger, exhaustion, and rest.
After the sun set, I became extremely tired and a little bit hungry. I ate a spoonful of almond butter then began falling asleep pretty much everywhere I stayed for more than a few minutes. On the floor, on a couch, and then ultimately in a bed. At some point I woke up for an hour or so, and put another log on the fire.
Chapter 5: Daybreakthrough
I woke up a few times, at one point the sun was rising, and then later it seemed to be late morning. I made a mild coffee, and once again positioned myself on the couch with my journal and waited. I had some light movement/walking around the premises with my journal during which I recorded thoughts.
Sometime after waking up, I noticed a pronounced desire to want to end the fast. I was feeling a little impatient, wondering what would happen next. This uncomfortable feeling lasted for some time (maybe 30 minutes?) at which point my mind quieted again and during a walk I had a profound realization. Or at least it seemed profound.
"You've moved away from work that lights you up. Get back to that."
This thought came as if a bell had rung. I did not do this fast looking for this conclusion, but it seemed very obvious that it was an important thing for me to address and a cause of the burnout. On previous "dopamine fasts" I have had a similar experience of a "storm before the calm"/insight, so it was nice to experience, and familiar.
I then entered a flow state where I wrote about passion and where to find it in my life. I was aware of how I had gotten into some habits and work that no longer served me and probably required re-examination. The list was long: I want to move away from income producing investments in real estate, change the types of meals I eat in the morning, reach out to some friends I've fallen out of touch with, and more.
And then...calm. At some point I stared at a deer for about ten minutes, noticing my desire to have him notice ME, even considering making a loud sound. But I let it be.
Chapter 6: The end of the fast.
I figured at that point it was roughly 24 hours. My wife showed up at the retreat, we chatted a bit, and I began the process of winding back into the world. I used Waze on the way back, made a phone call or two, and gradually re-entered my normal state of affairs. Overall it was about 22 hours.
It helped that I came in experienced with meditation, silent retreats, and mindfulness. But it wasn't required.
The time I had at the retreat center was definitely influenced/improved by my own prior experiences of dopamine fasting (I've done three other silent days on separate occasions), as well as my daily meditation practice of 27 years. Being able to tolerate the discomforts in the process allowed me to go deeper, faster.
But this is by no means required. I believe it's essential that dopamine fasts feel accessible to anyone. Simply turning off your phone, lighting some candles, and journaling can be enormously helpful. Maybe that's your first fast. So don't let the need to have a spiritual practice get in the way of just getting started.
It helped that I had a place to go to that was offsite. But rituals can make up for this.
I am enormously lucky to have access to a retreat that was close to my home. I recognize this is not the case for most people.
Why was it useful? Because the feeling of actually "taking leave of home" can be an important part of an experience like this (read about the importance of leaving home in the monomyth). If you are in the same space as you usually would be, I recommend a simple ritual to mark the beginning and ending of your time. For example, perhaps you take an object that represents something about you, wrap it in a cloth, and leave it by your door to be picked up at the end of your fast. Or you could ring a bell at the beginning and end. Or bow. Or light a candle and blow it out. The important thing is that it feels formal to you - your body will pick up on its meaning in ways that are more powerful than simple language.
Almond butter was too rich a food.
If I were to do it again, I might simply have a piece of bread, or skip eating altogether. Almond butter is extremely rich and definitely had a lot of behavioral/dopamine triggers. Also, with so little movement, I wasn't that hungry.
I wish I'd moved a bit more
Lying around for almost a day was too long. A little bit more slow walking feels like it would have been helpful - after all my biggest insight was during a walk rather than lying around. Next time, I can see myself taking walking breaks on a more regular basis.
You can still be triggering dopamine without your usual external actions
All that journaling I did at the outset, was its own version of stimulus --> response --> reward. Just because you aren't physically taking action doesn't mean you aren't involving this system; even thinking about actions involves dopa,mine. However, through allowing and awareness, this activity settled into its own slower pattern. The journaling had enough of its own benefit that I was willing to be less than perfectly adherent on this specific dopamine pathway.
I see a lot of value out of shorter and/or longer lengths of time in a dopamine fast.
The longest retreat I've done is seven days of mindfulness, with relational conversation. It was not strictly a silent/dopamine fast, however, it incorporated many similar elements. These things don't quantify easily, but seven days is definitely more than seven times as effective as one. And yet, I think I miss many opportunities to just do a 3-5 hour fast at the end of a busy day or before a busy week. Or even a partial fast (light talking, no technology, no lighting) that could help separate my thoughts from the constant pressure of things wanting attention.
In the end, is a dopamine fast anything other than scientific rest? Perhaps not. But the importance of rest can't be overstated and by coining the term "dopamine fast", we're allowed to define it in a way that works for us, in a culture code that is understood. "I'm taking a break" might be hard to say, but if "dopamine fast" gets approval from those around it, call it what you will.
So whether you take inspiration from Shabbat, sensory deprivation, spirituality, or just shifting your life, I'd recommend giving it a shot.