Time Off – Dopamine Resets and Mental Health

Mental Health is important

I am surprised when I hear people talk about psychotherapy as if it was something embarrassing. Mental Health is so vital for humans. Not just to be able to exist in this world, but to strive in it.

While the Western understanding of health seems to be the absence of any symptoms of illness, other practices, such as the 4000-year-old understanding of health in Ayurveda, concentrate on well-being.

According to Ayurveda, health -mentally, spiritually and physically- is the natural state, the equilibrium in which we reside. And we can maintain this state of health before even starting to treat sickness.

Let’s explore this through our Western understanding of health (although the West now also seems to catch up with ancient traditions).

Western medicine treats illness. But treating illness does not go deep enough. The Western understanding tends to be: “You are healthy when you are not sick”, but that is untrue. Health is not dichotomous, no black-and-white. It is a spectrum. Not being sick does not mean we are striving, either. We’re just… Not sick.

If we want to exist and function, the absence of illness may get us through. But if we want to strive, there is so much we can do for our health.

One of many things we can do for ourselves includes a conscious approach to our smartphones to reduce stress and anxiety. Here’s how

Little Stressors in Life have Impact on our mental health

So many of us are constantly overworked and stressed. Before mobile phones existed, it was easier to set times off. There is no social media scrolling, pings, calls, or messages that would need an immediate answer. All these little things are stressors for our health, and they are not always realised as such. It has become normal to be available all the time.

But it should not be – looking into our brain chemicals shows why it is so bad for us. And why it could be the reason for symptoms of low motivation or even burnout.

Ayurveda and the State of Equilibrium

Ayurveda believes that our body, mind and spirit are healthiest when in equilibrium. No excess, no deprivation.

A look at modern society shows everything but that. We are flooded with food, news, updates on social media and anything else that could be consumed (one way or another).

For now, we will look at the impact of our phones, social media and the constant stress of being available.

The Role of Dopamine

The little ‘pings’ we get with each mail, each Insta, Twitter, or WhatsApp message, release a tiny bit of dopamine within our bodies. Dopamine is the feel-good hormone. It is released when we anticipate a reward (that one is important).

So whenever we get a little notification, our body releases bits of this chemical that lets us look forward to reading the new notification. – TikTok has made a business model out of playing with our hormones because every new content releases bits of dopamine, and when the content isn’t all that great (which, most of the time, it isn’t), we are searching for the next high. It is what happens in an addiction.

So dopamine, in and of itself, is the hormone that drives us to do something. Experiments with rats had shown that when dopamine receptors were removed, rats would not go towards food, cocaine, oreo cookies or anything that they’d otherwise be craving. They would be starving. That is how vital dopamine is to life.

The thing with dopamine, and any chemical, for that matter, is that our body does not like fluctuations. It wants to be in a state of equilibrium. And when too much dopamine is flooding our body, our body will make up for it by releasing pain hormones. It is a pleasure-pain balance.

If you have ever taken a pill of MDMA or ecstasy, you know how sadness follows euphoria.

The same, by the way, also goes the other way. Pain can become an incredible source of pleasure. Examples include cold showers and baths that can be very uncomfortable and are followed by euphoria.

All this dopamine and this returning to baseline create a lot of distress for our brains and bodies. Companies (such as social media companies, food companies, and others) exploit our sensation-seeking and use the ‘drive’ hormone against us. And it is making us unwell. It may not fall under the “mental illness” category, but it certainly is not the best state to be in.

Short and Sweet: Dopamins’s Role in your body and brain

  • Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in various brain functions and the body’s physiological processes.
  • It is involved in the brain’s reward system and regulates motivation, pleasure, and reinforcement.
  • Dopamine helps control movement and coordination through its influence on the motor pathways in the brain.
  • It plays a role in cognition, attention, and learning by facilitating information processing and memory formation.
  • Dopamine is implicated in regulating mood and emotions, impacting feelings of happiness, contentment, and well-being.
  • Imbalances in dopamine levels have been associated with mental health disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and addiction.
  • The release of dopamine can be influenced by external factors such as drugs, food, and social interactions.
  • Dopamine also plays a role in regulating hormonal processes in the body, including the release of prolactin and growth hormone.
  • The proper functioning of the dopamine system is essential for maintaining overall physical and mental health.
  • Dopamine dysregulation can lead to various symptoms and conditions, highlighting the importance of understanding its role in the brain and body.

Mental Health: Mindful Downtime and Social Media Off-Time

I’ve read and listened to people creating extreme measures and avoiding smartphones altogether. Or not having any social media. While all of this is possible, I think there is a middle ground that can be found. Because at the end of the day, we want to live in this society with the new technology. And besides the downside, there are many upsides, too. Like staying in contact with loved ones, seeing what they are up to, sharing cute content, seeing inspirational content, ordering food, uber, etc.

We can help our bodies to keep the fluctuations small by:

  1. turning off notifications for social media apps – I think this one is crucial because many people note that social media is their biggest distraction
  2. set timers for social media – I’ve set my timer for 20 minutes daily. After that time, it blocks me from seeing the content. I can choose to spend 15 more minutes, one more minute, or not have the blockage for the rest of the day. I find this a beneficial reminder. Sometimes I overextend, but then it is when I can have the time for it. I found this a beneficial tool in the Apple settings because it lets me consume mindfully and with awareness. And given the time constraint, I also do not waste an awful amount of time on things that don’t bring any value to my life (like watching people bickering in comments sections)
  3. Have “Downtime” – my husband calls it my nanny. I have scheduled downtime for my phone starting at 9 pm. It used to be at 6 pm, but I enjoy wasting a little time in the evening watching YouTube or posts on Pinterest. 9 pm is the ideal time for me to stay away from my phone then. If I want to stay longer, I can consciously decide to do so and remove downtime. But most of the time, I do something else.
  4. Turn on “Scheduled Notifications” – Instead of ping with every new mail, you will receive scheduled notifications when you want to receive them. You can choose as many or as few scheduled notifications as you want. You can also choose which app notifications will be scheduled and which ones won’t.

Being Conscious when we consume is better than abstinence

Often, the little things – like taking little breaks in between to reset or making the conscious choice that we do (or don’t) want to engage with certain content- can help us return to a state of more awareness.

When it comes to all the ‘pings’ on our phones – they are abstractions that we can avoid. They are not necessary and stress we create for ourselves.

Here is the thing: People can wait – the world can wait. What matters most is that you are acting in a state of integrity to your values and schedule. If something urgent is coming up – you adapt to it and give it preference. But when nothing is urgent, rushing through and making it stressful is unnecessary.

You choose your priorities – Don’t let them choose you.

Book Suggestions

There are plenty of books that explain what dopamine does, why it is important, makes us feel awesome and also how various industries exploit our need to feel good. But there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and we can learn strategies to help us regulate our bodies’ hormone levels in order to feel happy and at peace.

  • “The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity—and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race” by Daniel Z. Lieberman and Michael E. Long
  • “The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time” by Alex Korb
  • “The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good” by David J. Linden
  • “Your Brain on Food: How Chemicals Control Your Thoughts and Feelings” by Gary L. Wenk
  • “Dopamine: The Molecule of Motivation: The Role of Dopamine in the Regulation of Mood and Motivated Behavior” by Filip Larsson
  • “The Addicted Brain: Why We Abuse Drugs, Alcohol, and Nicotine” by Michael Kuhar
  • “Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry” by Catherine M. Pittman and Elizabeth M. Karle
  • “The Chemistry of Joy: A Three-Step Program for Overcoming Depression Through Western Science and Eastern Wisdom” by Henry Emmons
  • “The Pleasure Instinct: Why We Crave Adventure, Chocolate, Pheromones, and Music” by Gene Wallenstein
  • “The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings, and the Biology of Boom and Bust” by John Coates
  • “The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love—Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits” by Judson Brewer
  • “The Science of Happiness: How Our Brains Make Us Happy and What We Can Do to Get Happier” by Stefan Klein
  • “The Broken Brain: The Biological Revolution in Psychiatry” by Nancy C. Andreasen
  • “The Chemistry of Calm: A Powerful, Drug-Free Plan to Quiet Your Fears and Overcome Your Anxiety” by Henry Emmons
  • “Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety” by Joseph LeDoux
  • Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence” by Anna Lembke

Anna Lembe talking with Andrew Huberman about addiction and the role dopamine plays in these processes

  • “Brain Wash: Detox Your Mind for Clearer Thinking, Deeper Relationships, and Lasting Happiness” by David Perlmutter and Austin Perlmutter
  • “Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, and Endorphin Levels” by Loretta Graziano Breuning

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