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Dopamine Detox: A Fighting Chance

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There are rules and regulations in a UFC fighting ring that make athletes fight fair. Rules are put in place for the safety of the fighters. As an audience, wouldn’t we rather watch a fair fight? But when your own brain’s neurotransmitters conspire against you, do you really have a fair fighting chance at life? 

I am Julia Vasile-Cozzo. This is my story on how I gave my brain a fair, fighting chance. 

I have read countless articles and advice essays on how to balance and find harmony within myself, on how to become happier and feel at peace. How to understand me better. I have tried yoga, meditation, self-medicating, long hikes, dance therapy, music therapy, journaling and more. Yoga worked for me a little, but I needed more. Turning my brain off and grounding myself can be difficult. When a friend told me about something called a dopamine detox, I did some research. 

A dopamine detox is, essentially, abstaining from all addictive or outside activities that raise your levels of dopamine too high. The idea of the detox is to stop being so dependent on activities and outside forces for sources of happiness and balance. The goal is simple, the person doing the detox is to feel more centered, balanced and less affected by their usual dopamine triggers. 

Dopamine is known as the short-term happy hormone and is released almost as a reward system in the brain when we do things that make us happy. It is different from but commonly confused with serotonin – a more long-term feeling of happiness or well-being. The natural reaction to a large release of dopamine is to chase the feeling of high happiness and do everything in one’s power to stay happy. The detox resets your happy baseline, so to speak. 

Before starting this detox, I spoke to a friend who told me about it. The detox can be done for any amount of time, but recommendations suggest a full 90 days. He did it for two weeks. I asked him how he felt it affected him overall, and he responded, “Doing simple tedious tasks like washing dishes, laundry, stuff like that, felt less painful and boring. I also think my attention span has been getting a little longer.” Me and my undiagnosed ADHD loved the idea of a better attention span, especially during the final weeks of my undergraduate senior year, so I decided to give it a try. 

When you have to perform mental gymnastics to stay focused on one task at a time, making the smallest decisions can be difficult. This difficulty often goes unnoticed because we think it’s normal. It goes unanswered as we switch from task to task before completing the first. It goes undiagnosed in many people simply due to the normality of jumping around a to-do list.  My intentions were simple, be more happy and learn how to focus.  The resetting of the happy baseline is intended to do that and more. Not only should it lower your tolerance for what it takes to be happy, but it should also help you stay focused. 

Things I gave up: smoking, drinking, sex, social media and video games. 

The detox is not necessarily to stop doing things that make you happy but more to limit how much happiness or dopamine you are releasing at a time. For example, if I were watching a movie, I would not go on my phone. If I were out with friends, I would not drink (I am 23).  According to Psyche Central, It’s common to be confused and think that dopamine is responsible for the sensation of pleasure and happiness itself. But according to a 2016 study, your pleasure response is a complex process involving multiple physiological mechanisms. 

Simply put, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that tells your brain to repeat behaviors that makes you feel pleasure.  In a society where we are constantly surrounded by instant gratifications, the fix to your next hit could be anything.  Your brain doesn’t know its choice of drugs. It doesn’t know when too much is flooding in. Its only goal is to merge in the sea of instant happiness to forget about duties, responsibilities and societal norms. 

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Dopamine is naturally highest in the morning, so during my detox, I capitalized on this fact by working out in the morning to increase my levels naturally. I then would track the noticeable and slow decline through the day, making note of things that peaked my levels.  I did this for two weeks. I noticed subtle differences in my life. I noticed mornings after hanging out with my friends for a night felt less like a withdrawal. I noticed I began to look forward to my morning workouts (I am not a morning person) I noticed I felt more present in what I was doing. 

I felt less distracted in my own mind and was better able to focus on the things and people surrounding me instantly without thinking about the million things on my never-ending to-do list. The detox helped me turn off my brain for a while. My undiagnosed ADHD self didn’t feel trapped in my own mind. I felt less cluttered, like my brain file cabinets were organized, dusted off, and could finally close properly. It was like falling in love. Even the most mundane things become exciting and enjoyable. Only this time, I was falling in love with myself. I was falling in love with someone who is now better equipped to regulate her moods. Someone who has a better understanding of herself. 

Before the detox, a lot of my crashes came when I would get home from a busy day of being at school, work and seeing friends. When I got home and was making dinner, I would get hit with a wave of exhaustion and, for lack of a better word, done-ness. I always thought that was normal to have a social batter be drained from the day and need to recharge. In my head, that’s why we sleep. That’s why we rest. To recharge our batteries from social interactions.  I think for me the biggest takeaway of my detox was that it’s okay to say no to things socially if I don’t want to or don’t feel like going. 

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During my detox, I noticed I was turning down opportunities to go out with my friends more than I normally would have. I grew to love the time I was creating for myself and the efforts of self-care that were borderline foreign to me. In hindsight, what was meant to be a simple experiment to reset my happiness baseline turned into resetting and reconstructing not only my brain but my perspective on life. Sometimes the fight within ourselves isn’t fair when we are the only judge, jury, and executioner. We tend to sentence ourselves to a harsher verdict than we would others, setting ourselves up for failure. 

Being fair in the fight starts with understanding the rules and regulations. My dopamine detox granted me the pleasure of getting to know myself better while adjusting my own rules and regulations.

About Julia Vasile-Cozzo

Julia Vasile-Cozzo is a recent graduate from Hunter College with a degree in media studies, journalism and studio art. Julia hopes to put her degree to use and work in journalism either as a photojournalist or in radio. She grew up on the East End of Long Island, where she bartended her way through college. She is excited to start her next chapter and can’t wait to see where her career goes. 

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