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  • Kristy Hourd

Dopamine Detox

Right from the get-go, you might be asking from the title of this article why I would suggest detoxing from something I just spent weeks telling you that you needed and didn’t have enough of. Let’s talk about it.

The brain is complex and is constantly identifying patterns and making adjustments to try to better serve you in your current environment and keep you doing things that feel good (i.e. not stressed). As helpful as this is, sometimes it results in adjustments we don’t actually want, and leads to shame around "wasting" time. When we’re stimulated, our brain releases dopamine. Things that can stimulate us include sensory information, what we’re doing, how many thoughts we’re having, our emotional state… all of it. Let's use a financial metaphor to think about how dopamine release works: your brain determines your baseline input of dopamine (your "base income"), and doles out dopamine (the "reward" for stimulation) based on your current stimulation level. Things that are low-stimulation (like reading or walking) give out a certain amount of dopamine, and high-stimulation things (like browsing social media or eating delicious food) give out higher levels of dopamine. Our brains also determine what our baseline level of stimulation is, and will adjust the currency rate of dopamine according to what it thinks the standard and consistent level of stimulation is.

The ADHD brain requires higher levels of stimulation in general, as it tends to run dopamine deficient, so we tend to seek out high-stimulation experiences as much as possible (sensory seeking), aiming for that high dopamine payout. But since our brains are also constantly watching how much stimulation we’re taking in to adjust the dopamine’s currency rate, this can sometimes pose a problem.

If we’re consistently seeking high levels of stimulation from our habits or environment, our brain will adjust to that as our baseline, adjust the dopamine currency to release less dopamine from those activities, and push us to engage more and more with those high-stimulation experiences. Not helpful, since we’re trying to increase our dopamine and now things aren’t stretching as far, right? We have to keep seeking more and more stimulation, using higher and higher stimulation activities, to the point we might start ignoring other lower but still important stimulation activities, including the ones we use to take care of ourselves: things like eating, paying attention to conversations and listening, engaging with nature and moving our bodies even if just for a little walk. Scrolling our phones, a high stimulation activity, can easily become consuming - and we need more and more of it to get the same amount of dopamine. This can set off an unhelpful cycle of getting dopamine from the easy and high reward sources rather than the slower onset, lower "bang for your buck" dopamine sources.

This cycle actually isn't doing what we want it to do because dopamine-seeking behaviours themselves can become stressful and when we're stressed, our brains don't want us to continue being stressed, so dopamine release is reduced.

A dopamine detox isn’t really about removing dopamine from your system - we need it for lots of things like motor control, memory, attention, learning, and sleep. It’s about adjusting the dopamine currency rate, so we get higher payouts from lower stimulation activities, allowing us to function better with lower stress levels. To do this, we need to change what our brain sees as the baseline amount of stimulation - by steering clear of higher stimulation experiences for stretches of time, and focusing on lower stimulation activities so they become inherently motivating again. There are many ways to do this; here are a few examples. Try them out and see if you notice a difference in how you feel!

  • Start up a daily mindfulness practice (try starting with just two or three minutes; mindfulness is challenging for neurodivergent folks! Moving meditation such as walking or yoga is often a more accessible starting point.)

  • Stay off your phone for the first hour of the morning

  • Reduce high carb and sugary snacks for a few days and replace with high-protein snacks or fruits and veggies

  • Set timers to help cue you into how long you engage with higher stimulation activities, like scrolling

  • Focus intentionally on lower stimulation experiences (take nature walks, read a book, listen to music, hang out with a friend)

  • Take a break from your current go-to dopamine booster (stop playing that video game for a day or two or spend less time on your favourite social media, etc.)

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