How Can We Detox?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that sends signals from one neuron to another. Whatever your drug of choice, chocolate, nicotine, amphetamines, social media, power or shopping, dopamine is the final common pathway for all pleasurable, intoxicating and rewarding experiences. It is believed to be the most important neurotransmitter when it comes to the experience of pleasure, motivation and reward.
But it isn’t ‘pleasure’ all the way because the same areas of the brain that process pleasure also process pain, and the pleasure-pain work like a balance. When that pleasure-pain balance tilts to the side of pain after the experience of pleasure, we experience feelings of discomfort, restlessness and irritability which can leave us unhappy and wanting to recreate the feeling of pleasure.
For those lucky enough to live in wealthy countries, where our basic survival needs are met, research has found that overabundance is changing the pleasure-pain equation and keeping us craving evermore. Personal resources (or credit cards to kick the payment pain down the road) make it too simple to get the next fix when not having the pleasure is triggering the pain. As with most addictions, as the baseline shifts the addict craves more-and-more to get the same feelings they expect from their fix.
The only way to not get hooked to this pleasure-pain cycle is to ensure the time in between each fix is long enough for our dopamine levels to drop back to our personal baseline of dopamine release. We all have a personal baseline release of dopamine and as we ingest certain substances or engage in certain behaviours our dopamine either goes up or down in response to that substance or behaviour. For example, research has found chocolate increases dopamine above baseline by about 50%, sex is about 100%, nicotine is about 150% and amphetamines is about 1,000%.
In the end it is our collective, dopamine addiction, triggered by consumption, that is killing the planet. So, the key question is, are we able to detox from dopamine?
October 2021 saw the publication of an important book, Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence by Dr. Anna Lembke, the medical director of addiction medicine at Stanford University and chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic.
As the summary explains, “This book is about pleasure. It’s also about pain. Most important, it’s about how to find the delicate balance between the two, and why now more than ever finding balance is essential. We’re living in a time of unprecedented access to high-reward, high-dopamine stimuli- drugs, food, news, gambling, shopping, gaming, texting, sexting, Facebooking, Instagramming, YouTubing, tweeting. The smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7 for a wired generation. As such we’ve all become vulnerable to compulsive overconsumption.”
Wealthy consumers can easily become addicted to dopamine unless they consciously self-regulate and, when needed, they detox to bring their dopamine levels back to their personal baseline. According to Dr. Lembke it takes a minimum of 30 days of abstinence to bring your dopamine levels back to your personal baseline.
So, the questions to ask yourself are:
1. Am I able to not buy anything other than basic essentials (food, cleaning products etc) for the next 30 days? And,
2. For the next 30 days, can I avoid online shopping sites, together with my favourite online magazines and social media that influence me to buy more?
While Dr. Lembke offers up a detox process, it is important to acknowledge that this is not all about personal choice, even though what we do as individuals can send a strong message to our equally addicted to power-at-all-costs politicians and profit-at-all-costs industries. This is also about looking at who benefits from keeping us addicted. ANY type of addiction makes us malleable, and you can’t behave in a rational or ethical manner if you are addicted to dopamine.
Behaving ethically doesn’t enter the purchasing decision when you are craving your next shopping fuelled dopamine fix. This is the key reason why the legal trade in endangered and exotic species is driving biodiversity loss and the extinction crisis.
All consumption is destructive to the environment in some way, and it is excessive, compulsive consumption that has created the current biodiversity and climate crisis. Meat production is the main driver of deforestation, overfishing is depleting the oceans and the luxury industry is driving the direct exploitation of wild animals for the use in fashion, home décor, beauty and health products and as exotic pets.
Addicts don’t think about the consequences of their actions and consumption addicts don’t consider either the distant or long-term effects of fulfilling their impulsive desires and need for the next purchasing fix. Without jumping off the addiction bandwagon using a dopamine detox, consumer addicts will remain irrational decision makers, with no consideration to anything other than their immediate self-gratification.
So, what does Dr Lembke recommend to help you detox?
The capitalist system of course depends on both creating these desires and keeping consumers addicted. A dopamine detox and a shift to conscious consumption with due consideration of the consequences is a deeply anti-capitalist stance, giving you back some of the power and freedom you lost when you pledged yourself to the rat race and the status competition
So here is an interesting thought for 2023 – would you like to claim back some of your personal power, freedom and control?
Then all you have to do is manage your dopamine! We cannot overcome the extinction crisis or the climate crisis unless we can change the consumption behaviours and that means tackling dopamine addiction.
Similarly, our politicians need to tackle their addiction to power (at all costs) and business and investors need to tackle their addiction to profits (at all costs).
Lynn Johnson is a physicist by education and has worked as an executive coach and a strategy consultant for over 20 years. In her work she pushes for systemic change, not piecemeal solutions, this includes campaigning for modernising the legal trade in endangered species, to help tackle the illegal wildlife trade.