On a normal day, my brain moves fast. Amid a pandemic, it’s traveling at warp speed. I told my mentor I was having dreams at night that zipped through my brain as if they were a video cassette fast-forwarding, a nonstop time-lapse show of images and emotions cherry-picked from my daily life. When she pointed out that I just don’t stop moving, that I’m constantly obsessing over my productivity and the next writing assignment I can snag, I realized it was possible that my mental health was taking a hit from my constant need to be go, go, go.
Back in March, I retreated to my mother’s house for a few days for a family funeral, only to find myself there indefinitely to ride out the coronavirus pandemic that had become widespread in my Boston neighborhood. Constantly inundated with tragic headlines and immersed in social media, I began to feel the weight of fear and anxiety over the pandemic tugging at my shoulders. Recognizing that I needed to purge my brain of the static that was affecting my well-being, I resolved to hit the ultimate reset button: a dopamine fast.
For the uninitiated, dopamine fasting is a practice of avoiding impulsive behaviors—such as scrolling social media, having sex, eating certain foods, and drinking alcohol—that are reinforced by a flood of the brain’s feel-good chemicals, the goal being to better manage those potentially addictive behaviors.
Cameron Sepah, Ph.D., an assistant clinical professor in the psychiatry department at the University of California, San Francisco’s School of Medicine, is the mastermind who catapulted the trend to fame, thanks to his popularity with tech entrepreneurs looking to optimize their professional performance. He’s said that the phenomenon’s moniker is misleading since we can’t deprive ourselves of something naturally occurring in our brains. But since dopamine levels do increase in response to things that bring pleasure, I wondered if there was any truth to the idea that depriving yourself of stimulation could make your future feelings more vivid. Instead of being consumed by every buzz and beep of my cell phone and mindlessly noshing on my favorite snacks, I hoped prolonged avoidance of my vices would be a means to more fully experiencing pleasure.
But according to experts, that’s a vast misinterpretation, since our own dopamine levels aren’t something we can decrease by avoiding over-stimulating activities. Dopamine isn’t like an external drug for which we can build up a tolerance. However, if a dopamine fast does encourage you to let go of stress and use mindfulness practices, experts say it could be beneficial. Sepah himself suggested integrating a fast into our lives in a way that’s minimally disruptive, even if it’s an hour at the end of the workday. I settled on 12 hours—a period that felt both ridiculously long to go without looking at my phone but also manageable.
Even though a dopamine fast involves avoiding more than just work and screen time, it’s embarrassing to admit that the idea of facing half a day devoid of checking my email, answering texts, or looking at Twitter is what filled me with the most dread. But due to lockdown orders, I no longer had the option to attend a hot yoga class or grab coffee with friends—activities that used to help me decompress. And so I embarked on this experiment armed with the understanding that there really is no time like the present.
The Fast Begins
I kicked off my fast at 10 a.m. on a Monday, knowing 12 hours would feel awfully long for my stomach to go without snacks. Sitting at the window and gazing out at the sun, I drank my morning seltzer instead of caffeinating while swiping through social media and email (my normal process), determined not to obsess over the tasks I wanted to tackle that day. After about 15 minutes, I felt the distinct urge to check my Twitter—something I normally do about 50 times per day.
As the hours passed, the impulse to look at my phone grew. What headlines was I missing? To combat overwhelm, I focused on the low-energy actions a dopamine fast allows, such as writing a gratitude list or doing gentle stretches. I watched the birds cascading through the air outside, their daily routines unaffected by the pandemic. A 10-minute meditation session turned into a two-hour nap on the couch. I took a leisurely walk around the neighborhood, typically amplified by a podcast in my ears or the goal of tracking my increased heart rate on my smartwatch. This time, I walked just to walk. To be present with myself. I passed a father and daughter joyfully playing Hacky Sack on their front lawn while trying to be extra conscious of what was happening around me. The joy in their faces warmed my heart, and I was glad to have taken notice rather than being consumed by my usual tech aided routines.
By early afternoon, my stomach growled lightly, prompting me to realize that perhaps I’m not always as hungry as I think I am when I'm mindlessly munching throughout the day. I took a long, luxurious shower and built a fire in my mom’s fireplace watching every piece of kindling as it ignited. As the embers curled into dust and soot, I felt hypnotized, treating it like my own form of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response). I sat in the living room, browsing L.L. Bean and Talbots catalogs placed by the hearth to fuel the fire. I spent lots of time reading, slowly poring over Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries. While I normally read for only about 10 or 15 minutes every evening before falling asleep, I devoured more than a hundred pages of the book—something that would have taken me a month to do otherwise.
By the time I reached the end of the fast at 10 p.m., I was thrilled to enjoy a meal. Though I felt famished, I tried to eat slowly, working to understand the difference between what I need and what I robotically consume throughout the day. And finally, I could check my phone! I browsed texts and emails, responding to editors and friends who had messaged me. And after I looked through it all, I realized one thing: I hadn’t really missed all that much of value.
Though my fast had ended, the days of lockdown stretched on. But now, I faced the time with a different outlook, wondering whether I could use what I’d learned to enhance my experience of the world around me. Still unable to attend my pre-pandemic fitness classes such as spin and barre, I opted for nightly five-mile walks, completed in a series of single-mile loops around the neighborhood. I embraced the repetition, hoping the redundancy of the practice would turn off my thinking brain in the present and activate the sort of awareness I experienced while dopamine fasting. I was enchanted by a beautiful pink magnolia tree in the front yard of a dilapidated house and a pair of bright yellow American goldfinches perched on a branch.
Delighted by these simple pleasures, I realized that maybe life in quarantine was, in itself, a dopamine fast. With weeks on end of being told to stay home to protect myself and others, I was forced to find stimulation in the natural world around me. My senses kicked into overdrive. Not spending time chasing subway trains and working for hours in coffee shops allowed me to look within everyday life to find the mindfulness tools I’d been lacking.
Today, I don’t regularly go 12 hours without looking at my phone, but I have taken a piece of the dopamine fast with me: Every morning, I meditate for five minutes outside while drinking my coffee in the sunshine.