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Dubai: “You need a dopamine detox,” a friend told me a few months ago when I described my choc-a-block weekend. It is go, go, go from the moment I open my eyes until I go to sleep at night. The average day encompassed a morning workout, smoothie with my gym buddy, brunch with my friends, followed by family time, then dinner with my other friends and maybe a club or lounge at night with outfit changes in between. No rest. Weekdays on the other hand involved 9 hours of work followed by dinner with my family and an event with my friends, or maybe a work out, again with outfit changes. What it never involved was staying home, reading a book, resting, chilling or relaxing.

I am, after all in charge of the Going Out section (currently the Staying Home section) of Gulf News, so going out is kinda, sorta, part of my job. I took it very seriously.

Why did I need an alleged dopamine detox?

“Well because you stopped experiencing happiness and satisfaction from your constantly full schedule. If you slow down and take a day off from anything stimulating, you can start to feel happy again at your daily activities” my friend said. Well… that sounds kind of right… I mean, it’s not that I was tired, I was just bored. Didn’t feel like I needed to rest. Maybe just to change my activities. It’s the same dinners, same people, same parties. My friend was kind of right. But was a dopamine detox the way to go?

What is dopamine?

Dopamine is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter found in our bodies. The body produces it, and the nervous system uses it as a chemical messenger to send messages between nerve cells.

Dopamine plays an important role in how we feel pleasure. Whether it’s entering a party at which you know everyone, seeing your favorite artist perform live for the first time or having a major crush on someone, who you know likes you back. You know what I’m talking about. That feeling that makes you giddy, energetic, and euphoric, potentially even leading to decreased appetite and insomnia – which means you actually can be so “in love” that you can’t eat and can’t sleep. I know I’ve experienced that.

So when you feel these euphoric feelings all the time, through constant stimulation of the life around you - being around friends, being around your crush or walking into parties where you know everyone. It sends those levels of dopamine into overdrive.

“Dopamine release in your body is usually triggered by a range of external stimuli. Especially stimuli that are somehow associated with reward,” Sneha John, a Child and Adult Psychologist from LifeWorks Holistic Counselling Centre in Dubai told Gulf News.

But Sneha does not endorse doing dopamine detoxes or fasts. “The idea that restricting most of your pleasurable daily activities so you can “reset” your brain isn’t right. On the contrary, now that we are living a completely different lifestyle than we are used to, we should be doing small things to encourage dopamine to continue being produced.”

Ah yes. A certain coronavirus pandemic. Who would have ever predicted that almost everyone in the world will be self-isolating and going through the exact same thing at the same time? We went from a busy life with plenty of entertainment to practically no stimulation apart from our computers.

The ‘new normal’ dopamine levels

Now that we’ve been stuck indoors for a couple of weeks, our dopamine levels have adjusted to a new normal. If you were living the typical ‘Dubai life’ of go, go, go, or work hard play hard, then then you might have noticed a drop in your dopamine production. As a result, you feel a little more unfocused, frustrated, lethargic and probably a little bit sad.

Those feel good hormones aren’t there anymore. And boy do they feel good. So good, in fact, that people become addicted to drugs just to chase that rewarding dopamine high. Research has shown that the drugs most commonly abused by humans including opiates, alcohol, nicotine, amphetamines, and cocaine, create a neurochemical reaction that pointedly increases the amount of dopamine that is released by neurons in the brain's reward center.

That is how much humans love the release of dopamine into our system. That’s why we chase things that make us happy. So back to my previous point. Our normal dopamine levels have dropped. They have dropped to a new normal. But you know what? This is an opportunity.

“The lack of outside stimulation is helping us to find a balance in our hormone system. At this point in time, it doesn’t take much to make us feel very happy. A sweet message from a loved one. A video chat with a group of friends. Making a puzzle with your parent. Self-isolation, has made it easy for us to feel a rewarding dose of dopamine when we do the simplest thing,” Sneha told Gulf News. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people are starting to feel some inner peace and balance during this time.”

However, just because our dopamine has dropped, doesn’t mean we should use this as an opportunity to dopamine detox, or to leave it low. It is still important for it to exist in our system. It’s not something automatic. We have to be the ones to encourage its production, by doing things that make us happy. At the end of the day, we need all of our hormones to function normally. So if we are keeping our dopamine levels down if, we will start to sense a loss of motivation and interest in things we used to enjoy.

“When I still have my sessions over the phone with my patients, they tell me their symptoms: Irritability and tiredness, feeling jittery and moody, or they snap at their family members. I know it is a dopamine deficiency. They aren’t doing enough to bring their mood up.”

At this point in time we need to have balance. We don’t have the usual stimulation we get from being physically around people, driving down the street with loud music, going out to dinners and partying with our friends. We are homebound, so we need to get nice and balanced stimulation from basic activities at home.

“You have to make sure that the stimulation isn’t just coming from one place. Like a computer screen. It needs to be a multitude of sources. Eat lots of proteins. Amino acids in protein are what is being converted into a substance called ‘dopa’ then into dopamine in your brain. Sleep for 7 hours, not more and not less. It is equally helpful for us to remain in a balanced mood all throughout the day.

Things have changed

Try not to think about missing your original life. Don’t get into that thinking trap. A small checklist would help. Writing down things you want to achieve during this time and ticking off the things that you’ve actually done. Also set a long-term goal. Sure your means of achieving those goals are different now that you are at home, but you can still set long term goals. Whether it is your dream body or an educational goal.

Talking with other people, that should keep your mood up. Make sure you catch your negative thoughts before they spread. Don’t think of self-isolation as losing your precious time. Let go of those thoughts and enjoy the lack of social pressure.

It is a totally different way of living, but this is a great opportunity to anchor yourself. You are not different, you are still you. It is the lifestyle that has changed.

What happens when things go back to normal?

It will be very very tempting to rush out of the house and experience as much as you possibly can at once. “Don’t do that,” Sneha advises.

Make a list of the things you really want to do. Don’t do everything at once, tackle your list one by one, so you can fully enjoy every single thing after getting out of self-isolation. Get your activity in doses and gradually, rather than an intense night out or a full day out.

As much as you think you might not want to remember this terrible time, try to keep the essence of what you’ve gone through, like the structure and discipline of self-isolation and bring them into your post-coronavirus life. Certain routines that you are doing at the moment, like sitting together, cooking together, making puzzles, you should try and keep some of the positive parts of self-isolation in your new normal life.

Don’t completely go back to over-exhaustions and fatigue. Try and keep your first few weeks out simple, so you can continue find happiness in the small things.

“The beauty of the brain, is that is has slowly switched us around to adapt to this new normal. It took us about 2 to 3 weeks for us to get used to this isolation life,” Sneha said.

“It will be easy to switch back to our normal life, and when our brain resets to normal life we will then go back to craving the simple things we did during self-isolation.”