Bad habits are spawned in much the same way good ones are: we experience something pleasurable, and the neurotransmitter dopamine tells us we should do it again. This is great for keeping us alive and healthy—think about the pleasure gained from good food or a long nap—but trickier when it comes to damaging behaviors like spending too much time on social media or drinking. Enter dopamine fasting, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) designed to support impulse control issues by replacing negative impulses with positive ones.

You might be surprised to learn that dopamine fasting has nothing to do with dopamine or fasting. Rather, the name refers to rethinking that boost of pleasure we get from an activity that isn’t healthy for us. Everyone knows that overeating, drinking, or too much gaming can have a negative effect on a person’s mental health. What they might not realize is that much of that additive behavior has to do with impulse control.

Trying out dopamine fasting might include:
  • Identifying the problem and make it inconvenient to access. This could mean avoiding situations where you’re tempted to overindulge or installing software on your computer that will help control your social media habits.
  • Finding an alternative to the bad habit. When you feel like reaching for a drink, consider taking a walk or meditating. Instead of reaching for the video game controller, trying drawing or reading. Your brain will learn to associate good feelings with this new activity and develop impulse control.
  • Examining what attracts you to the bad habit. Understanding the emotions behind your actions is powerful. You might discover that you engaged in some of those activities out of boredom or loneliness.

A dopamine fast does not mean depriving yourself of pleasure or the companionship of others. But curbing some of your impulse control issues will likely result in a positive effect on your mental health. Finally, working with a trained CPT professional is recommended, especially if you think you might go through withdrawal symptoms.

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