Express News Service
A particular week every month, Riya Khambhata indulges in online retail therapy. It is when she is PMSing. “I am cognisant of the fact that I don’t need anything but I cannot fight the urge to buy as it gives me a high.” This high could be potentially dangerous. And not just shopping, any activity that peak our dopamine levels suddenly such as gaming, eating high-calorie food, or scrolling social media endlessly, responds to the reward centre of the brain. When this becomes a habit, certain behaviours can become addictive and lead to poor impulse control. Psychotherapist Tasneem Nakhoda explains, “Dopamine is a chemical which is released when you reward yourself with an activity of any kind of pleasure. When these activities start affecting the quality of your everyday life such as binge eating, gambling, sexual addiction and others, they become compulsive behaviours.”
Many of us are aware of the twiddle thumb tendencies. To combat this, the concept of a dopamine fast emerged in the Silicon Valley and has been adopted by many since then. It is an evidence-based technique to manage addictive behaviours by restricting them to specific periods of time and practising ‘fasting’ from impulsively engaging in them, in order to regain behavioural flexibility.
The science behind this rewiring of the brain lies in classical conditioning. The idea is to fast from compulsive behaviours reinforced by the release of chemical dopamine. It is to gain control of our mental bandwidth by restricting external stimuli.
But do not see dopamine as the villain. It is critical for human functioning as it aids learning and motivation among other important things. The important thing here is to learn how to regulate impulsive behaviours by undertaking a dopamine fast.
Many of the vipassana practises—India’s ancient technique of meditation—includes periods of abstinence, one example being abstaining from speaking. Setting a medical base for the concept, psychiatrist Shreyasi Tendolkar explains, “Dopamine peaks because of indulging in impulsive behaviours that lead to instant gratification.”
The solution lies in our lifestyle. “Stop staring into your mobile phone for no reason,” says Tendolkar. “Deactivate the notification feature so that you are not easily distracted. Remember, small steps help. At first, you may not notice any difference in your behaviour but subconsciously, reprogramming is happening,” says Tendolkar. Next, try and stay away from social media at least two times a week.”
Getting to the root of the issue or the compulsive habit could be a beneficial strategy to break the dopamine high habit, according to Nakhoda.
“Ask yourself what makes you obsessively do something? It could be hoarding, doubting, hair picking, washing, showering, cleaning, talking or even avoiding something. We do not do these when we are relaxed. It is only when we are bored, anxious, angry or lonely that such habits get triggered. During times such as these, pleasure and control are all we seek,” says Nakhoda.
When you start out, it may not be a bed of roses. “At first, when we deprive ourselves of a reward (or the chosen habit), it makes us edgy, irritable, or snappy, pretty much like a no-sugar diet does. Your annoyance will show up in your mood,” says Nakhoda. But stay focused. “Simple steps like putting the phone away for a certain period, making a schedule of when and for how long you will be on social media, mindful eating and drinking, or shopping only once a month are some of the simple ways of curbing dopamine release,” she says.
As a natural consequence of keeping away from compulsive behaviour, you will have more time on your hands so channelise your efforts towards forming new habits such as going for a jog, taking up a hobby, upskilling, gardening, trying a new workout, meeting friends and family and other such things.
✥ Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter.
✥ It acts as a chemical messenger communicating between nerve cells in the brain.
✥ It is the most famous linchpin in the brain reward circuitry, according to Dr Kent Berridge, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan.
✥ When one associates a certain activity with pleasure, dopamine is released.
✥ Dopamine is linked with increased energy, focus, and sexual desires on the one hand, and stress and sleep issues on the other.
Help at hand
At a time when people are shackled to their smart phones resulting from boredom or
loneliness, dopamine fasting helps.
✥ Regulation is the key.
✥ Setting realistic targets for yourself is necessary.
✥ Having a strong intent will keep you on track.
✥ Inculcating mindfulness can go a long way in addressing the root of the problem.