How much of your time is spent in front of a screen? How long do you stay on your phone, scrolling through endless content on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook? These are the questions we don’t like to ponder, since doing so forces us to acknowledge our phone addiction. But don’t feel bad about the answers that came up in your head – we all spend a lot of time in front of screens. Besides, a lot of our behaviors are just a byproduct of living in the 21st century, so there’s no reason to beat yourself up.
But we do have to be gently honest with ourselves to modify some of the unhealthy habits we’ve picked up along the way, especially when it comes to media consumption. We’ve allowed technology to take our precious time away, and our phone habits have turned into an unhealthy dependency. According to one psychology study, 94% of college students felt troubled when they weren’t carrying their phones with them, while 70% said they expected to have feelings of depression, panic, and helplessness if their phone were to ever get stolen.
94% of college students felt troubled when they weren’t carrying their phones with them.
And their feelings are valid! We use a smartphone for everything. In a sense, our phones have become a second brain for many of us. Information is readily available at our fingertips, allowing us to find immediate answers. Yet, there has never been a time in human history when people would constantly stare at rectangular devices radiating EMFs and blue light. So, the question is, how is this affecting our minds and bodies? Because we all know that mindlessly being in front of technology for hours a day every day has to come with consequences, considering how unnatural it is. Although we live in the modern world of convenience and innovation, cases of depression, anxiety, and other diseases are still on the rise. Could our favorite device be a culprit of the "dis-ease" people are experiencing today?
How Phone Addiction Affects Dopamine Levels
Think of dopamine as a form of currency. In order to feel motivated and ready for any task, you have to feel good first. You need dopamine for learning, motivation, and pleasure. The reward system in our brain uses it to communicate. It's released when we’re engaging in pleasurable stimuli like eating sweets, smoking, gambling, or watching TV. After a dopamine rush, you feel happy for a little while. Your dopamine levels then decrease, making you need more, and so you do those same things all over again.
In a normal brain, a pleasurable experience results in a spike of this "feel-good" chemical which quickly returns to baseline in preparation for another hit. In an addicted brain, however, the baseline may be higher or lower than normal. The enjoyable stimuli may feel much longer and more intense, but the dopamine levels plunge to 0. However, it stays there without returning to normal levels. In fact, it doesn’t improve until the addictive behavior is cured. This state is known as quicksand, where the dopamine baseline level sinks lower and lower.
The reward system in our brain uses dopamine to communicate.
Here’s what quicksand looks according to the University of Pennsylvania: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The high transforms into a corresponding low…and with each succeeding drug or alcohol event, the addicted person must use more and more to get less and less of an effect (tolerance) — continues falling further and further until they are using not to get high but just to get normal. With time, will take 75 percent of normal, then 50 percent…'just keep me out of the quicksand' — will do anything to avoid the withdrawal, the misery." As you can see, our phone addiction can lead to low dopamine levels. But what exactly does that mean for our overall health?
How Low Dopamine from Phone Use Affects the Body
50% of dopamine is produced in the gastrointestinal tract, and some is made in certain parts of the brain. Think of the body as a giant machine, and everything in it — from cells to large organs — as an important cog that keeps everything running smoothly. This means if one of the components in the body (in this case, the reward system) is abnormal due to an addiction, then you may experience some dysfunction. This can show as a myriad of symptoms. For example, dopamine deficiency caused by addictions can lead to Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, and depression. Some other symptoms that we typically don’t link to low dopamine levels are fatigue, moodiness, dysphoria, weight fluctuation, changes in sex drive, and the inability to focus.
How Dopamine Fasts Help
A “dopamine fast” (coined by psychologist Dr. Sepah) is exactly what it sounds like — you refrain from the activities that give you a quick dopamine rush. One way to put this into practice is to limit your phone and computer use. This can be difficult at first, especially if it’s your “go-to” for relaxing. You can replace any addictive activity by reading, implementing a new self-care routine, walking, exercising, making dinner, or journaling. Food addiction is also an issue in the U.S. Instead of binging on unhealthy items throughout the day, opt for more protein, fats, fruits, or veggies! You can be as creative as you want with dopamine fasting. Make it fun by trying out new hobbies. Learning about yourself and exploring new subjects is a great way to reset your dopamine to normal levels.
Dopamine fasting will most likely be difficult at first, so I recommend taking tiny steps at first. For a phone addiction, you can set a time limit. For example, if you use it for five hours a day, set a limit to four hours a day until you can comfortably decrease the number. Do the same for other addictive tasks and repeat the process!
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