I Tried a “Dopamine Detox” for a Weekend and It Worked — Just Not in the Way I Expected

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Some people start the year with resolutions to eat more vegetables or meditate more often. For me, these were actual doctor’s orders after I developed a stress-related condition and had to take a medical leave from work. As I was researching lifestyle changes, I came across a podcast episode on “dopamine detoxing,” which begins with the host, Dr. Brian Goldman, explaining how people tend to engage in certain behaviors like shopping, emotional eating, or mindless internet use when they’re “looking for a hit of dopamine.” 

Dopamine detoxing is meant to counter those impulsive habits, and because I was struggling to focus and stay calm while returning to work, I was interested in anything that could help. If you’ve been on social media lately you may have seen TikTok videos raving about the benefits of a dopamine detox for your mental health. But does it work? I decided to consult an expert about the science behind a dopamine detox — and try it out for myself.

What Is a Dopamine Detox?

Psychiatrist Dr. Cameron Sepah developed dopamine fasting or detoxing in 2019 to help people manage addictive behaviors. A dopamine detox means giving “preference to mindful practices in place of cognitive traps such as chronic texting and playing video games,” says Dr. Akua K. Boateng, a licensed psychotherapist based in Philadelphia. She suspects the concept is trending on social media as people seeking peace and simplicity are becoming more aware of the impact of being mentally overactive. 

Dopamine is a chemical messenger in the brain associated with pleasure and motivation. The purpose of a dopamine detox is to give your brain time to rest and reset. “Instead of reaching for overstimulation, detoxing allows you moments of quiet, boredom, and digital free exercise,” she explains.  

As its popularity grows online, so do misconceptions about what a dopamine detox means. Some people take it literally by cutting out anything pleasurable such as shopping, eating junk food, or spending time with friends in hopes they’ll get more joy out of these activities once the fast is over. But you can’t minimize dopamine using restriction, Boateng says. Removing pleasure triggers like social media, shopping, and junk food does not lead to a decrease in dopamine levels.

Because dopamine is naturally present in the body, you can’t fast from it like you would when you abstain from food or drinks. You can, however, replace the instinct to automatically respond to texts or social media posts with more mindful practices. “The goal should be normalizing typical levels of dopamine, not restriction,” Boateng explains.

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What Happened When I Dopamine Detoxed for a Weekend

According to Boateng, how long to dopamine detox for is a personal decision. “Restructuring the need to chase temporary relief can take time,” she says. So, whether you detox for a week, a weekend, or just a few hours, the point is to get used to “sitting with uncomfortable feelings instead of seeking temporary relief in chronic behaviors,” she says.

When trying a dopamine detox, Sepah recommends starting slow with a few hours at the end of the day or one day out of your weekend. I decided to try detoxing for a weekend. The first thing I did was turn off notifications on my phone. I stayed off social media and didn’t watch TV, listen to music, or order takeout. Instead, I spent most of the day outside on the deck. 

As an introvert with two dogs, I felt completely comfortable having time alone, and unplugging from email and social media felt like a welcome break. The difficult part was having no screen time at all. Without the ambient glow of the TV in the background, I felt bored and isolated sitting in the living room where I eat breakfast and unwind before bedtime.

As the work week began, I kept my notifications off, opting to check email and social media at my discretion. After a few days, I noticed I felt less reactive when responding to requests, as I had control over when and how often to check my messages. 

So, did the dopamine detox work? For me, avoiding joy triggers like TV or takeout didn’t bring me inner peace. What really made a difference was changing my environment by going outside and turning off notifications. 

How to Do a Dopamine Detox for Yourself

If you’re struggling to stay focused or motivated, you may benefit from a dopamine detox — not to alter your dopamine levels, but to be more aware of what’s pulling your attention away from how you want to live and work. The idea is to reconnect with yourself and others without giving up healthy habits that boost your mood. Here are some ideas to get started.

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