What to Expect in the Dopamine Detox Month

Dopamine Detox Month. Image of lush green forest in South Wales

What did it feel like?  

What lies behind our urge to reach for our phone, to load an application or to engage with other digital technologies in a compulsive way? For me, it was crucial to examine the nature of the experience itself during the digital detox. To what extent is Cal Newport correct in suggesting that a permanent, low-level sense of disease and anxiety permeates existence in the modern era, a reality where small hits of dopamine from a continual stream of digital interactions temporarily distract us from an unpleasant background? To what extent is this background malaise a result of our lower baseline levels of dopamine from chronic exposure to addictive habits?

With these questions in mind and pre-loaded with the principles from our digital detox, I made a point of examining urges to pick up my phone or to load social media – what did it feel like? First off, without already having decided to keep my phone away from the bedroom and work area, I may well have not noticed anything. I simply would have carried on as usual, unaware.

Even with these principles and restrictions in mind, the first week or so felt like a period of gradually noticing how things felt. I became more aware of the discomfort behind an urge to pick up my phone. The first step was to restore a degree of meta-awareness, the ability to pay attention to the contents of my mind and to observe what was going on.

At work moments of boredom, frustration and inability to concentrate drove my search for novelty. I realised I crave high levels of stimulation and that I get bored and frustrated very easilly. I found my attention would splinter and I would move on, or attempt to multitask (unsuccessfully). These patterns of experience were enhanced when tired, anxious or in pain. My conclusion was that my baseline, auto-pilot state is to crave novel stimuli and for there to be an uneasiness and discomfort behind experience.

Mapping the experiment over the month

Towards the end of the first week, I would ‘catch’ myself moving towards my phone or a new browser tab. It started to feel as though I had additional ‘space’ to act, as though I had, in some modest way, enhanced my willpower and control over cravings. I put this down to (1) having an enhanced mental ‘policy’, a set of guidelines I had internalised for the detox month and (2) repeated practice and failure of this mental policy. Gaining this additional mental space made me think about the nature of addiction as an erosion of meta-awareness, the addict passing through a cycle of craving and fulfilment with little access to the process itself. To what extent are we ‘freely’ acting when we reach for our phone? A disquieting thought, especially in relation to our previous discussions on the efforts of technology companies to capture our attention and create cycles of repeated behaviours. Surely these actions are making us less free.

Practically, I found the key next step was to figure out how to use this enhanced meta-awareness to act contrary to an urge. Ultimately the enhanced meta-awareness is of no use in a passive sense, i.e. to just watch onself go through with an action. The crucial step is to not just become aware of an urge but to make another choice. I experimented with moving my body, stretching and just sitting, instead of acting out an urge. Perhaps the most interesting response was to just sit. On the face of it this felt like the most passive response, but sitting with the awareness of an urge provided more insight into exactly how they felt and even clues as to what lay behind them. Once again, here it feels like my experience in meditative traditions helped out. I tried to sit and watch these urges with non-judgemental, open awareness. A key realisation here was that the urges themselves constantly changed. When I stopped to look at the contents of my mind, the dis-ease would either morph or dissipate and later in the process became less apparent.

The steps of (1) adopting a policy (i.e. having principles and practices of the detox in mind), (2) noticing and following experience (mindfully) and (3) noticing and changing my response felt like a kind of patchy progression over the month. It was certainly not a steady progression, and there were periods of regression, particularly on days and weeks where I had to engage in something requiring more digital tech use (some examples below).

A graph depicting dopamine exposure on the vertical (y axis) and time (in days) on the horizontal (x axis). 
The graph shows a gradual, but patchy reduction in digital dopamine exposure over time.
How the digital declutter went over the month

Interestingly I found the process revealing for an occasional smoking habit that I had not intended to inspect. It felt to me that the feelings underlying an urge to roll a cigarette were one and the same thing as those driving my urge to pick up my phone. There was a cross-addiction. As discussed previously, the mechanisms behind behavioural and substance addictions are, to a large degree, inseparable, operating through the reward pathways of our brain. Nonetheless, it was interesting to appreciate this at an experiential level, and it has enhanced my appreciation for the digital declutter methodology, which may provide some benefits for an array of addictions.


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