February 21, 2020
by Tina Arnoldi
Our modern workplace has changed. Many employees feel the need to be ‘always on’ because of the capabilities of technology, potentially leading to “technology addiction”. When people are rewarded for behavior such as a quick response to text or email, they are inclined to continue that behavior. And repeating a behavior in a compulsive fashion can lead to an addiction.
Dopamine fasting encourages people to avoid stimulation to become better versions of themselves. Dr. Cameron Sepah describes it as “an evidence-based technique to manage addictive behaviors, by restricting them to specific periods of time, and practicing fasting from impulsively engaging in them, in order to regain behavioral flexibility.”
The goal is to fast from the impulsive behaviors that lead to addiction, such as overuse of technology. The concept is that when people intentionally disengage from technology, they weaken the classical conditioning response and become more flexible in how they use technology.
From reddit discussions to mainstream publications, some practitioners swear it works. Others believe it’s more hype - just another trend - that does not lead to lasting change. While taking breaks from outside stimulation can make anyone feel better, consistently low levels of dopamine can lead to symptoms of depression.
But anecdotal evidence only goes so far in the medical community. Jamie Bacharach, acupuncturist and health coach, is aware of the dopamine fasting trend with growing internet discussion in regards to its merits. But she notes that “while some of these discussions are undoubtedly captivating, it takes years of research and responsibly conducted study to conclude whether or not a practice such as dopamine fasting has genuine health merits.”
Haley Neidich, LCSW, does believe that unplugging from stimulation is a good practice for everyone, but says “the framework of this as 'dopamine fasting' feels like hype and feeds into the notion that deprivation equates to health. What ever happened to striving for balance rather than engaging in this extreme all or nothing thinking? As a therapist who often treats people with disordered eating and in particular, orthorexia, I am concerned about the normalization of the term 'fasting' both as it concerns dieting or anything else we consume.” Bacharach discourages anyone from dopamine fasting if it meaningfully interferes with someone's day-to-day life in a negative way and says it “should be halted as soon as any negative effects are observed.”
With all therapies or self-help approaches, experts know that people's mental makeup and health greatly vary. Bacharach states that ”self-help and self-improvement are highly customizable practices which should differ on a case-by-case basis. What works for some people may not work for others, and especially not to the same degree. With this in mind, it's important to note that if someone does decide to attempt a dopamine fast, they should start slow.” And just because it’s the latest trend, it does not mean it is right for everyone.
Ian Wright, the founder of British Business Energy, gave dopamine fasting a try with his social media use by using web blocking software. Initially, he felt a little bit happier and more productive. (This may be similar to people who have reported that deleting Facebook has also led them to feeling happier.) But he adds, “I just found other things to distract myself rather than social media. And when my fast would end, I would just binge on it, when that had never been an issue before. So instead, I've found that using it a small amount throughout the day is better than trying to fast from it. So I don't want to rule it out for anyone else, but for me it was more hype than help.”