Something’s been happening lately and I know it’s not just with me. Because a few days ago a friend came over and said he’s been having a rough time. He’s been uncharacteristically depressed, anxious, on edge. He wasn’t sure what exactly what, he said, but something was off.
I know what you mean, I told him. I feel the same way, but I don’t know what it is. I have extra time but I haven’t been using it to do the things I always wanted to do with it – reading, writing, starting new projects. I have a new job and though I’ve just started, it already feels draining. I already feel unmotivated and stressed about it. And simple pleasures that used to entertain and excite me – a new Netflix show, a new dinner recipe – no longer hold the same appeal. In fact, most nights I find myself telling Jay that I don’t feel like watching anything. Nothing, I feel as Susan Sontag once said, holds me anymore.
It has to be COVID I found myself telling him. I mean, it’s gotta be. But after he left I couldn’t shake my answer. It’s too broad to keep saying COVID. Yes, our lives have changed, but at this point I’d like to accept that change and start changing with it. If this is life now, why haven’t I adjusted?
My Google terms (burnout, anxiety, COVID) led me down a rabbit hole of more terms I already knew. Maladaptive behaviors. Isolation. Depression. But then I found myself clicking on a hyperlink of one I didn’t recognize. ‘How to feel Nothing Now, in Order to Feel More Later.’
The New York Times article was on dopamine fasting, a craze popularized in Silicon Valley. The concept derived from behaviors and techniques normally applied to those in drug rehabilitation. According to Live Science, all addictive drugs cause dopamine levels to spike in one way or another, and in response, the brain weakens or eliminates receptors built to respond to the chemicals. Meaning we need more to elicit the same levels of dopamine. And the things that used to excite us, give us that surge of pleasure and happiness, no longer do it for us. But according to these Silicon Valley executives, it’s not just drugs that zap our dopamine.
We become addicted to things that make us feel good, these addictive behaviors include social media, binge eating, drinking, and over time, we need more of it to feel good and what was once enough is now never enough. Addictive substances and behaviors repeatedly bombard the reward pathway with huge surges of dopamine, and over time, the brain morphs in response. What once excites us no longer appeals to us. What once felt good now feels stale.
The same way drug addicts enter a period of abstinence in order to reset the brain’s reward system, these Silicon Valley CEOS were going through their own detox phase of their own ‘drugs’ anything that gives them pleasure – to allow their receptors to calm down.
To reset their tolerance, they intentionally avoid all activities that cause their dopamine levels to spike. This includes watching television, social media, alcohol, gatherings with friends, etc. When they end their fast, Sinka, the founder, claims he feels more engaged, excited and ready to take on a day’s work. Everyday experiences, he claims, feel better.
Maybe, I thought, the reason for this recent malaise is just because my dopamine receptors are fried. Maybe COVID has forced me to deal with life without access to the highs I once sought. Maybe this new anxiety comes from a brain that hasn’t calmed down, that’s in a tailspin, chasing a dopamine high that I can’t get anymore.
And what’s that look like? A woman spiraling. A woman sitting in her apartment, biting her nails, opening tabs at random, going to the kitchen at 4pm to drink wine, online shopping for things she doesn’t need, snacking at 11pm. Could this anxiety, this restless feeling, this burnout be the result of a mind that can’t slow down even though the world has?
There’s no clubs. No noisy, exciting restaurants to try, no bars and movie theaters to treat myself to. I’m still running a mile a minute, only now there’s nowhere to run to. Now, it’s just the small pleasures. Movies in with my husband. Dinners cooked alone. Small gatherings with close friends. But these highs are no longer enough for me because I’m used to so much more. I’ve dopamined myself out.
Of course, upon deeper research, I found split opinions on this concept. Neuroscientists are divided on the ability to fast on dopamine. We need dopamine to survive. You cannot completely get rid of dopamine. But I also found that every article that bashed it ended it with some sort of concession. Yes, it’s a ridiculous name for an extremist solution, but it’s founded and rooted in meditative and CBT practices. The idea is that by allowing ourselves to feel lonely or bored, or to find pleasures in doing simpler and more natural activities, we will regain control over our lives and be better able to address compulsive behaviors that may be interfering with our happiness.
I want to try something this week. In fact, I started it with writing this article. Every time I got tired writing, or found myself feeling the opposite of happy (which is normal when engaging in the self-inflicted terror of trying to structure ones thoughts on a page), instead of jumping to another stimulus like I normally do (Facebook, Instagram, talking to my husband, checking my phone), I made myself stop, shut the laptop and give my mind a break. Just sit there. Look out the window. I even rested my head of the desk for a little. And yes, the thoughts of I hate this. I don’t want to write anymore flowed through my mind, but then, like magic, they stopped. And after fifteen minutes of doing nothing, I found myself with renewed energy to continue. I found myself excited to write again.
The answer could be just that. In engaging in nothing when we want to engage in something, anything. What if instead of completing fasting on pleasure, we set times for it. What if we told ourselves we wouldn’t allow ourselves to go on social media past 4 pm every night. What if we put locks on our phones for the entire weekend. What if instead of jumping on Facebook or Netflix after dinner, we forced ourselves to sit on the couch and just let our minds rest. Let those synapses cool down.
And then what if we set individual goals for ourselves and the unique things we want to enjoy more? For me, that’s wine. Right now, I drink it whenever I feel like it. I have a glass on Monday, then two, if I feel like it, on Tuesday. And by Friday I’m not interested in wine, I need something stronger, and even that doesn’t satisfy me, and that restless urge is still there. Wine, I’ve realized, isn’t sacred anymore. I’m not enjoying it because I’m always having it. So what if this week I didn’t let myself drink it? What if I denied myself so I could enjoy it more on Friday?
I’ve always been attracted to challenges. Of doing something hard now to feel something good later. Maybe this challenge could be the way back to ourselves. Challenging ourselves to feel less in order to feel more. I know I need something to jolt me out of my stupor and I think a good, healthy dopamine challenge may be just that. So this week, let’s just see if it works. Let’s actively try to do less.
Try to get off and stay off. Let’s start with something like no Instagram and Facebook after 5pm. Let’s actively put a lock on those phones. Let’s try reading when we want to watch TV. Let’s try making dinner even though we want to order in. And let’s really try to just sit instead of run. Relax instead of look for something to distract ourselves. To stare out the window when we’re tired of work instead of jumping on Facebook or browsing for new clothes. To try writing instead of texting. To give our minds a break in the hopes that over time, we’ll get back that joy of the little things we can’t see anymore.