Dopamine detox: what did I get myself into?

When Sarah, singer song-writer from Rotterdam, talked about doing a Dopamine Detox, we were surprised to say the least, as dopamine is one of the ‘happy’ hormones.  Dopamine is linked to lots of functions in the body, but is most commonly known for helping us feel pleasure or reward.  Why would Sarah want to give this up? Read on to find out…

When my partner told me he wanted to do a dopamine detox I laughed at him. A dopamine detox? You mean giving up everything that gives me joy?

He showed me a video called DOPAMINE DETOX | How To Take Back Control Over Your Life by Niklas Christl ,and explained that we use so many things to give us a quick shot of happiness. Scrolling through endless videos on social media when we are waiting at a bus stop so that we aren’t bored. Or a glass of wine (or two) after a long day of work that we give ourselves as a reward. All quick fixes: but do they really give us a joyful life?

I, with a lot of reluctance and no real motivation, accepted the challenge and started a week of dopamine detox.

The following things were off-limits:
1. No social media (including YouTube)
2. No watching series or movies
3. No junk food or soda
4. No porn
5. No listening to music
6. No alcohol, no drugs, no smoking
7. No chocolate

And the week begins.

When these rules were explained to me the first thing that concerned me was no watching TV series or movies. Whenever the working day is done, I reward myself by sitting down on the couch and watching Netflix. It’s my way of turning off my mind. Preferably something that is so stupid that I don’t even have to pay attention to follow it. While watching series I also tend to watch videos on TikTok or Instagram. Which meant I was watching two things at the same time, just to cancel out the noise from the real world. I would get really annoyed if someone would call me later than 6, because that disrupted the whole idea of not knowing the world is out there and to be in my own bubble. Reading a book or painting was to much work for me, I wanted to lay down, do nothing and zone out.

This challenge had a great impact on that.

I discovered that a lot of the things on the list above I use to give myself a joy boost. I love a good glass of wine, especially after a day of work, and am very much a chocaholic. The thing that really surprised me was that I told my partner: “I don’t even drink that much soda.” Drinking a soda was one of the things that went wrong this week. Without even thinking about it I accepted one and it was only afterwards I realized that I was breaking the challenge. It takes a lot of consideration to do this challenge as so many of the things on the `off-limit’ list are integrated in our lives. For example, you hear music everywhere. It’s quite impossible to not listen to music when in every store and restaurant you hear music. It seems like it has become more of a necessity than a luxury. On day four I went to work early in the morning and the car radio was on. I didn’t even think about turning it off, and I actually turned the volume up so that I would stay awake. Again, after the event, I suddenly realized I wasn’t allowed to listen to music. I even did the same thing on the return journey and I didn’t remember to turn the radio off until I was halfway home. When I did turn it off, it was actually such a nice and easy feeling. The sun was shining, I heard the birds and could look around at the environment instead of zoning out.

Social media was somehow not much of an issue. Except that I use social media for work (which I allowed myself to use). I didn’t miss scrolling through all the videos and pictures. In the first few days I did tend to grab my phone but later in the week this became less and less. Now at the end of the week I am actually so much happier without all the useless information I receive. My friends were on a ski holiday and I knew they would be posting, so I just asked them to send me pictures and tell me directly. It was much more personal and I enjoyed it more.  It was as if I was with them instead of just looking at posts as an outsider.

In the last week I was more grounded, had much more time on my hands and lived more balanced than ever before. I cleaned my house more often, took more walks instead of taking the scooter, I talked more with friends and slept very well. Before I was rushing for no reason and it gave me anxiety that was not necessary. This challenge gave me a sort of meditational feeling, as if everything I did was with much more consideration. I also did a lot thinking about many memories I had, about living abroad or fun vacations I had with friends. Every action and thought had much more value than before.

Would I do it again?

I will definitely do it again and I am even considering to keep going with a slight change of rules. I am a musician, so listening to music is my life and work. But say, I am in the car on the way to work and I can’t put on the music I want to listen to, I will not turn on the radio just to listen to some music I don’t even really like and commercials that I definitely don’t want to hear. Not watching series and movies was a big challenge but by doing this I had so much more time to work on my music, to catch up with friends and work on some new fun projects. Will I never watch a movie or series again? Probably not, but I will start integrating some structure where I allow myself to watch something once every few days. I definitely want to use social media less. As I use social media for my work I will be focusing on sending information instead of receiving. I am missing nothing. Like really nothing. And the things I am missing, such as pictures from my friends on holiday, I can ask them to send them to me personally.

Singer songwriter Sarah Burger was born and raised in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. As down to earth as that city is, are her songs. She sings in Dutch, Spanish and sometimes English, but allways straight to-the-point and without fuss, but with a sweet lining. She likes to perform for a small audience, so she can talk to everyone and see people laugh. She loves to make people smile, with her jokes and funny remarks, or by bringing back memories with her lyrics.  Her songs are personal, from her own experience, but recognizable by almost everyone. Listen for yourself. 

How I discovered independence wasn’t always a good thing

I used to pride myself on being independent and ‘strong’. I wore it like a badge of honour. “I have everything together. I can do it all by myself. I don’t need help from anyone.” Yeah. Right. What a load of baloney. 

I thought it was better for everyone if I just got on with things; I became an expert at compartmentalising. At putting on a mask that said, I’ve got this, I don’t need anything from you, I’m not going to put my troubles on you.  

I was fully aware of the irony. I had even spent four years as a listening volunteer to people in acute distress. Not once did I think of the people I spoke to as weak. I admired their tenacity and strength in dealing with their struggles. Just somehow, I couldn’t tie these things together where I was personally concerned. 

Self-justification came from saying that my stuff wasn’t ‘that big’. I could manage. But, in reality, not showing my struggles wasn’t strength, it was fragility. It was being too scared to pull the string that said I need a shoulder to cry on, because I was afraid if I did, I might unravel.

However, there is only so long you can go on pretending that everything is fine when you are living with an alcoholic, your marriage is disintegrating, you have a toddler to care for, work is massively stressful, you never get a full night’s sleep, and you have a perpetual knot of anxiety in your stomach that feels like you are hurtling down the motorway without breaks and the wheels are about to fall off.  

At some point, you have to share what’s going on. And once I did, didn’t I feel foolish for not having done so before. Where I had feared judgement, there was only kindness and care. People offered support in ways I couldn’t have imagined and didn’t have the words to ask for. From the deeply practical – childcare, playing taxi, packing up our home – to wonderful non-judgemental space just to be with someone who cared.  

This was a turning point for me. Time to stop independence being a badge of honour, and to know when it was being used as a shield from being vulnerable.  

Showing vulnerability is the real strength. Being prepared to ask for help is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the key to building stronger relationships. Relationships are built on trust, honesty, and care. If we pretend we don’t need help or support, we are not being honest, we are not showing our trust in others, and nor are we caring for ourselves or allowing others to care for us. To quote Brené Brown, world leading researcher on vulnerability: “being vulnerable is the key to whole-hearted living”. 

How to find the perfect gift?

Ho ho ho. Here it is again, my favourite time of the year, the holiday season with its wonderful tradition of gift giving. 

I just love gift giving. In fact, I even made it my job! I co-founded a company that supports start-ups in developing countries and local social initiatives by selling their fair-trade products in holiday season gift boxes that Dutch companies give to their employees. 

Every year I enjoy the process of thinking up wonderful, surprising, and valuable gifts that will make the receiver – and thus the company giving them – happy. Providing economic development where it is most needed is highly motivating. Thinking of original, crowd-pleasers that are widely appreciated, while balancing the environmental impact is not an easy job, but oh so satisfactory when it works out. 

I also love gift giving in my private life. I am known (and ridiculed in a loving way) in my family for collecting perfect holiday gifts as early as in May. Sometimes I even forget about them and find them in a drawer in January… this is the reason why I started to keep secret notes in my phone! 

And I am clearly not alone in my love of gifting: the Christmas shopping frenzy sets new records for retail in December each year, especially favouring the big online stores like Amazon and Bol, resulting in millions of packages being sent, along with tons of plastic and cardboard.

A survey by American Express revealed that 86% of millennials spent more than they planned on buying expensive gifts for their partner, children and family members. And not all gifts are appreciated: studies from retail federations and Oracle show that more than half of purchases (mainly clothes and electronic gadgets) are returned, causing a tsunami of refunds, logistics, time and transportation.

Why do we give loved ones gifts anyway? 

Apparently gifts giving is as old as mankind but the holiday gift tradition was supposedly started by the Roman emperor Caligula, who publicly declared that he would be receiving gifts on the first day of the new year. 

Numerous studies reveal that there is a lot of psychology in gift-giving and it can cause us stress. Feeling guilty, competition within the family or trying to live up to expectations can cause us to overspend. We may feel pressured to buy expensive gifts because we were given one last year. We feel compelled to spend the same amount on everyone, or to buy something because all the other parents are buying their kids ‘this thing’.

And what about awful gifts?! What if our partner/mother/bestie comes up with a horrendous gift, does that mean they don’t love us?

So, let’s sit down, and take a deep breath. Let’s do it differently this year. Gift giving is supposed to be about showing our love and appreciation, deepening relationships, and making the receiver feel loved and seen. And that has very little to do with how much money you spend on a gift, and all-the-more with the attention and time you put into it. 

It really is ‘the thought that counts’

Which doesn’t mean that any old gift will do. It is about the actual thought behind it. The conscious consideration to think about what would make your loved one really happy. Making the effort to buy or make it yourself. To wrap it beautifully. To write a personal heartfelt message to accompany it. And giving it a good karma, by making it as sustainable as possible.

Stuck for ideas? How about getting a family heirloom or favourite piece of jewellery restored? Capturing a wonderful memory in a frame? Starting a family cookbook, by writing your favourite recipe on page 3 and passing it round the family?

Don’t know what gift would really touch your loved one? That might mean that you have to spend some real quality time with them to get to know them better. And ho ho ho, isn’t that what the holiday season is about? 

How to get my self-care back on track?

I know that self-care is important, I have read all the articles and research and even written a book about it.  It really is the most important thing we can do to feel more content, and yet in reality life sometimes takes over and it can end up not getting the attention it should.  I am talking about self-care as taking the time for a relaxing soak in the bath or a manicure, but also taking the time to check in on myself and how I am doing with my life.  

My warning signs that my self-care is being neglected are when I find myself feeling tired, grumpy, under the weather or struggling to keep on top of things.  I start chewing my nails and am quick to have a glass of wine. It seems strange that by spending more time on myself I will be able to get everything else done and feel happier, and yet it works.  

When I focus on myself I buy healthier food, make time for exercise and go to bed earlier.  I always feel so good after cooking and eating a healthy meal. I am better at group classes and more likely to attend. I also focus on my bedtime habits and replace watching TV and a glass of wine with reading a book and drinking herbal tea. I prioritise meeting friends and family, they help me keep things in perspective and support me.

For me, keeping in control of my finances is important. I like to know where I am and  I also like to check in every now and again and be sure that I am happy with where I am going in life and that everything is still in line with my values.

Sounds like I have it all sorted and yes, I am more aware of when I am neglecting myself, but it all still sometimes gets away from me.  When this happens, I go to a trusty notebook and look at what is happening with my time.  Time is the one thing that I can’t get more of, so it is a matter of using what I have wisely.  It seems old fashioned, but having my week written down quickly shows where my time and energy is going and helps me prioritise, with my self-care going in first. 

Life is always changing and I am better at keeping my self-care on track, and when it does slip I am better at recognising the signs and dealing with it. 

What is self-care to you? How well are you doing? What are your warning signs that your self-care is being neglected? What lessons have you learnt? What tips do you have to share?