The Definitive Guide to Dopamine Fasting 2.0: The Hot Silicon Valley Trend

Dr. Cameron Sepah
Oct 28, 2019 · 10 min read
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Dopamine Fasting 2.0 has gone viral worldwide! This article has 140K+ views, and the international media from the ABC, The New York Times, BBC, and other prominent media have covered it across the US, UK, Australia, Finland, France, Japan, India, Russia, Turkey, and the Middle East. So what is all the rage about? Dopamine Fasting 2.0 is 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. Unfortunately, there’s also been a lot of public misunderstanding due to media misportrayals, so let’s start with what it ISN’T.

Here’s what Dopamine Fasting 2.0 IS NOT:

- Reducing dopamine (the focus is on reducing impulsive BEHAVIOR)

- Avoiding all stimulation/pleasure (focuses only on specific behaviors that are problematic for you)

- Not talking/socializing/exercising (actually encourages values-aligned health behaviors)

- Rebranding meditation/asceticism/sabbath (doesn’t involve meditating or not working)

- Vacation (people treat vacations as times to indulge even more in bad habits)

- A “tech bro” or Silicon Valley-only trend (it’s done by both genders all over the world)

What’s the Science behind Dopamine Fasting 2.0?

Let’s first understand how impulsive behaviors become problematic or addictive. If you’ve ever studied behaviorism in a psychology course, you may recall that “classical conditioning” is a process which helps us learn that involves dopamine. To be clear, we ARE NOT fasting from dopamine itself, but from impulsive behaviors reinforced by it.

With enough training, unconditioned stimuli we’ve never seen before, like a red dot or notification on your smartphone, can become conditioned stimuli, because we learn to anticipate a reward (the negative reinforcement of alleviating our negative emotions, or the positive reinforcement of seeing a novel thing). This ‘double reinforcement’ can lead to impulsive/addictive behavior since every time we feel bored, anxious, angry, sad or lonely, we seek those things that both numb the bad feeling and distract our attention with pleasure.

How is Dopamine Fasting 2.0 based on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

We can regain flexibility over such automatic, rigid behavior by restricting the external stimuli, which is a Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)-based technique called “stimulus control.” You can do this in several ways to reduce your need to rely on willpower:

1) Put the stimulus (like your phone) away or make it harder to access.

2) Engage in an alternative activity that is incompatible with the stimulus (e.g. hard to do sports and stress eat at the same time)

3) Use website-blocking software or social accountability to prevent yourself from cheating.

We can also naturally expose ourselves to the internal stimuli (negative emotions), without engaging in the conditioned response (grabbing for our phone), which is another CBT-based technique called “exposure and response prevention”.

1) Notice when the impulses arise, and what thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing in that moment.

2) Practice “urge surfing”: watch the desire to engage in the conditioned response come and go without giving into it.

3) Repeatedly returning to whatever you are doing on instead, with a spirit of non-judgement.

Over time, this weakens the classical conditioning in a process called ‘habituation’, which ultimately restores our behavioral flexibility.

Collectively, CBT is considered the gold standard treatment for impulse control disorders. With behaviors that are hard to abstain from altogether, the scientific consensus is that

“clinicians have generally agreed that moderated and controlled use of the Internet is most appropriate to treat the problem.”

In addition, a specific study showed that dopamine fasting from Facebook for a week helped students regain 13.3 hours of their time, and significantly reduced depressive symptoms by 17%, which allowed them to engage in more healthy behaviors instead.

The Dopamine Fasting 2.0 Schedule:

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What makes Dopamine Fasting 2.0 unique are the time blocks, which recommends fasting for gradually longer periods of time periodically to extend the benefits. Here’s how to do it:

The FASTING Schedule (when you DON’T engage):

Follow the fasting schedule if you want to still do the behavior during the day, but just want to cut back a bit and regain some behavioral flexibility so it’s not so impulsive all the time.

The fasting schedule excludes behaviors are problematic during periods of time that are normally associated with rest (nights/weekends/vacations), that make it easier to comply:

  • 1–4 hours at the end of the day (depending on work & family demands)
  • 1 weekend day (spent it outside on a Saturday or Sunday)
  • 1 weekend per quarter (go on a local trip)
  • 1 week per year (go on vacation!)

Remember these are suggested guidelines, not strict rules. If it’s easier to start by dopamine fasting for 1 hour a day (vs. 4 hours a day), then go for it, and then try to ramp up to what you’re willing to do and sustain long-term (e.g. 2 hours/day). Perfect is the enemy of good. So like Nike: just do it.

The FEASTING Schedule (when you DO engage):

If you would really like to minimize a behavior so you’re doing it as little as is practically possible, but still want or need to do it on occasion, then add in the feasting schedule to put total time limitations about when exactly and how much you’ll do the behavior.

With this added approach, allow yourself to engage in the behavior for 5–30 minutes, 1–3 times a day. One easy way of doing this, is allowing yourself to check your phone for notifications and communications right after mealtimes only for a limited amount of time before moving on.

Interestingly, the Chinese government has instituted a practice in-line with Dopamine Fasting 2.0 as compulsory law for minors under the age of 18. They use both and fasting and feasting schedules: having video game makers program a feature that disallows use from 10PM-8AM, and only allowing use for 1.5 hours/day during weekdays and 3 hours/day during weekends and holidays. While it would be ideal for parents to be the one to institute this, the Chinese are likely ahead of the curve here since they’ve seen how much internet addiction has devastated their youth.

What Makes Dopamine Fasting 2.0 Distinct?

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Just as intermittent fasting has become all the rage in Silicon Valley, I have created “Dopamine Fasting 2.0” as the antidote to our overstimulated age. What differentiates Dopamine Fasting 2.0 is that I DO NOT prescribe a list of things that you cannot do. If you have zero bad habits that you would like to spend less time on, then you probably don’t need to do it at all. However, if you find that a particular behavior is causing you:

  • Distress (you’re bothered by how much you do it)
  • Impairment (interferes with your optimal social or school/work performance)
  • Addictiveness (you want to cut down, but cannot consistently do so)

Then you may want to target that behavior for dopamine fasting. In my clinical experience, I find six categories of impulsive behaviors are commonly problematic and prone to addiction. Again, you DO NOT need to abstain from ALL of these things, only the ones that are an issue specifically for you. This also helps compliance, so you don’t feel like you need to make drastic changes to your life and feel deprived:

  • Emotional eating
  • Internet/gaming
  • Gambling/shopping
  • Porn/Masturbation
  • Thrill/novelty seeking
  • Recreational drugs

This list is neither inclusive nor exclusive. The antiquated versions of “dopamine fasting” that say absolutely no digital devices, but I find this to be missing the point. For example, browsing compulsively through various articles on your phone can definitely be addictive, while reading a single book on a Kindle Paperwhite device (which has no options for distraction) is probably fine. To decide what to fast from, simply regard whether it’s highly pleasurable or problematic for you, and thus you may need a break from.

The Six Most Common Behavioral Addictions:

1. Pleasure Eating

It’s easier to be completely abstinent from recreational drugs, since they are not absolutely necessary to live or work. However, food is much trickier, since we obviously need to eat to sustain ourselves. Those those who are already doing intermittent fasting (IF; such as where you eat for 12 hours and fast for 12 hours) or extended fasting (where you fast for 1–5 days), it’s very easy to incorporate into dopamine fasting. For example, the 4 hours of dopamine fasting + 8 hours of sleep = 12 hours of intermittent fasting that doesn’t include food.

For everyone else, it’s fine to eat healthy foods during a dopamine fast, just avoid those that tend to be highly rewarding/addictive. In my clinical experience, these are foods that are ultra-processed to have added ingredients that make them very:

  • Sweet (sugar-sweetened beverages)
  • Salty (chips)
  • Savory/Spicy (chili)
  • Combine carbs + fat (buttered popcorn, mac & cheese)

2. Internet/gaming

The internet is hard to avoid given how connected school/work is, so the goal is to compartmentalize it to within 12 hours, so your brain can take a break for the remaining 4 hours of the day and pursue valued activities instead.

Generally speaking, avoid anything designed by a company (movies/television) or involves frequent input (scrolling/clicking), since products such prioritize user engagement not user well-being. While the internet can be a great learning tool, the constant attentional switching (and thus dopaminergic firing) from social media, articles, forums, games, etc. is what’s problematic. As mentioned, reading a book on a non-distracting digital device is fine.

3. Gambling/Shopping

These two behaviors are actually more related than people realize, given they involve repeatedly spending money in order to purchase a large payoff. They can be considered male and female cousins since more men like to gamble, and more women like to shop, though these stereotypes are increasingly blurring as traditional norms break down. In any case, any form of gambling and non-utilitarian shopping (for staples) should be avoided during a dopamine fast.

4. Porn/Masturbation

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with porn or masturbation on an individual level, but the issue is more around how they are used. For some people, these behaviors can become problematic and compulsive and thus benefit from dopamine fasting.

Sex is a trickier issue given there’s another person involved, and thus may be hard to schedule. Thus, I’d suggest it’s fine to have sex if you can’t do it another time and it’s done in a fulfilling way with a regular partner. Americans are generally starved of physical intimacy, so values-aligned sex is a healthy behavior worth making an exception for (just when I’m treating insomnia, I tell clients that sex is the only activity allowed in bed besides sleep, to promote sleep hygiene). Random Tinder hookups are obviously discouraged during a dopamine fast, as they can be impulsive/compulsive sexual behavior.

5. Thrill/novelty seeking

Psychologists call this “sensation seeking”, the public calls it getting an “adrenaline rush”. These behaviors can also take more subtle forms such as seeking novelty, complexity, & intensity (like watching a psychological thriller or horror movie).

An easy rule of thumb is if it elicits an emotion that is high energy/arousal AND very positive negative in quality/valence (such as euphoria or fear), then consider abstaining from it during a dopamine fast.

6. Recreational Drugs

Obviously abstain from recreational drugs during a dopamine fast, but that also includes alcohol and caffeine, which most people don’t consider to be drugs because they’re socially not stigmatized, but can absolutely be physiologically addictive. This also has the added health benefit of significantly improving your sleep quality if you avoid it in the 4 hours before your bedtime.

But I don’t have time/can’t avoid checking my phone!

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If you can’t fit your work/pleasure into 12–15 hours/day, I’d argue that you (who are not clinicians on call or first responders) are not very good at managing your time & energy. Learn to follow the 80/20 rule of figuring out what 20% of your behaviors are getting 80% of your results in order to figure out what to eliminate or delegate.

Forcing yourself to engage in “time-restricted pleasure” also makes you procrastinate less and better manage your time and energy, because you have to be efficient within that window.

What Should I Do Instead?

You don’t need to “do nothing” or meditate during a dopamine fast (unless you’d like to). Just engage in regular activities that reflect your values:

- Health-Promoting (exercise, cooking)

- Leading (helping, serving others)

- Relating (talking, bonding over activities)

- Learning (reading, listening)

- Creating (writing, art)

What’s Wrong With Fun? & “Dopamine Binges”

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The point of dopamine fasting is not to encourage monasticism or masochism, Fun, enjoyment, and aesthetic appreciation are an important part of life (though most of could use less flattering social media and more fulfilling sex, which would honestly make us a lot happier).

Hormesis is a concept from toxicology where taking a substance in low doses may make us less susceptible/resilient to it over time. For example, being exposed to an allergen as a child may actually make you less allergic later in life. Similarly, I encourage going on “dopamine binges” once in a blue moon (obviously in a way that doesn’t incur long-term health, relationships, or legal issues). That helps reinforce the lesson that these behaviors aren’t inherently problematic, but it’s the habit that’s the issue. So practice flexibility regarding fasting itself in order to reset from resetting.

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Dr. Cameron Sepah

Written by

CEO, Maximus. Med School Professor. Executive Psychologist to CEOs & VCs.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +733K people. Follow to join our community.

Dr. Cameron Sepah

Written by

CEO, Maximus. Med School Professor. Executive Psychologist to CEOs & VCs.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +733K people. Follow to join our community.

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