Dopamine Detox: Resetting Your Dopaminergic System
Core - Edition Nº31
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how overstimulation chronically affects our health and happiness. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter in inducing motivation, focus, a better mood, and regulating the brain’s reward centre. But with the constant access to social media, video games, processed food, and the 24/7 news cycle (99% of which is rage bait), many of us are completely overloading our dopaminergic systems.
This is something I’ve struggled with before. Unable to cope with a slow day. I’d find myself burning my dopamine levels too quickly and constantly checking my phone in order to top it up, whether I saw a new notification or not. Even as I tried to work, part of my brain kept getting pulled towards opening apps, scrolling feeds, or jumping over to listen to music that drifted me further from the state of focus I needed. I couldn’t concentrate for long before seeking out the next dopamine rush.
As a result, those activities I used to find fulfilling were no longer engaging my attention quite the same or making me feel that sense of motivation and reward. I desensitised. Restoring balance in our brain’s chemistry is crucial for long-term healing and sustainable well-being. Still, my dopaminergic system burned out so much that everyday pleasures stopped registering — and I grew chronically unfulfilled.
Dopamine initiates the effect of wanting. It’s what makes chasing goals so pleasurable. Imagine fireworks of incredible sparks, pops, and bangs as the hormone casts itself in our brains when we encounter a reward or “natural reinforcer”. Delicious food, sex, novelty, exciting friendships, praise, and money all come to mind as natural reinforcers. We encounter them — and dopamine releases.
But from both anecdotal content and a growing body of research, you can see this phenomenon seems increasingly common. It’s good to want food, sex, and novelty in moderation. They all contribute to our mental and physical well-being. But, there is a good chance these adaptive dopamine-driven behaviours become maladaptive. So, there are several ways we can try resetting our overloaded dopaminergic system and get back to experiencing motivation from joy and less intensely stimulating activities. After all, creating anything worthwhile depends on your ability to reset.
Prolonged abuse of any form of great stimulation can disrupt dopamine balance, leading to problems with tolerance, dependence, and an inability to experience pleasure naturally. But resetting our system can help reduce these cravings, restore motivation, and create a solid foundation for wellness.
One approach is abstaining from social media, music, videos, gaming, processed food, news, and even sex and socialising for 24 hours or longer. This idea may sound intense, but it allows dopamine receptors to downregulate and reset significantly.
I started with social media detoxes and reduced socialisation for a few elected weekends at a time. Boredom initially set in, but it doesn’t settle. The feeling that follows is almost euphoric; simple pleasures—going for a walk or clearing ideas and thoughts in your mind— became incredibly enjoyable and fulfilling. I even felt put off going back to my phone. A beautiful reminder that we can feel joy and reward from natural, everyday experiences rather than artificial ones. You don’t need the constant stimulation from a phone hijacking the process.
Setting healthy stimulus limits
If going cold turkey is too difficult, setting healthy limits on dopamine-spiking activities can also help reset your system over time. I realised that checking social media first thing in the morning made me restless and scattered all day. The more I did it, the more I wanted to do it. So, I started replacing the habit with an hour comprising:
A first-thing morning walk, no matter the weather
A 10-minute core workout that I created
2 minutes of box breathing
Breakfast with my mum
I’m not saying I immediately stopped looking back at my phone — but slowly and surely, I got there.
You can set limits on gaming, video binging, or compulsively listening to music while working (though I say that while having a pleasant but dull playlist going as I write this). Whenever those activities crowd out more meaningful or essential parts of your life, it’s time to cut back. Your brain will thank you later as your systems start functioning more healthfully and you slow down.
Find your dopamine alternatives
Creating meaningful things needs time where you reset how your body reacts to work and reward. Many lifestyle changes support the health of your dopaminergic system: getting plenty of regular exercise provides a huge boost on its own. And ensuring you get quality sleep every night helps your brain better regulate neurotransmitters like dopamine. In fact, it is argued that creativity solely springs from maintaining a healthy dopaminergic system. You can try:
Spending an hour a day letting movement be the only form of stimulation
Taking a break from nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol
Setting a specific bedtime
Getting more sunlight and less artificial blue light
Consuming quality, plain foods
Reading for 30 minutes a day
Meditation or prayer
Mastering a new skill with complete focus
The diet for your mind plays as much a role in your health and happiness as the one for your body. Eating more protein and cutting refined carbs works wonderfully similar to avoiding news and hate-seeking content.
There is still so much to learn about the intricacies of our brain’s reward circuitry. However, consciously maintaining a healthy dopaminergic system is essential for mental health and fulfilment. Monitoring your reactions to stimuli, regularly resetting with fasts or breaks, and establishing healthy habits — can all help you reclaim consistent energy, focus, and joy.
We aren’t inherently broken or deficient; modern society and technology pay up to billions to master stealing our awareness. But by spending time against this, we can tune our dopaminergic system to motivate us towards consistently healthy relationships, pursuits, and pleasures that deeply nourish us.