Students should take a break from constant external stimuli

Students should take a break from constant external stimuli

Grace Xu

One Saturday in November, I took it upon myself to attempt a five-hour dopamine fast. (Including sleep, it ended up being a full twelve hours.) I had found out about the self-care trend through the internet, as one does, even though a major component of dopamine fasting is going unplugged. In fact, the trend is based on the idea of avoiding any stimuli that can give you a dopamine release, your brain’s natural reward system.

However, according to the New York Times, the trend is often more of a stimulus fast than a strict dopamine fast. Personally, I didn’t allow myself to look at any electronics, read books, eat, hold conversations, exercise, listen to music, or drink to anything that wasn’t water. I did allow myself to write in a journal, fold laundry, and meditate.

To be honest, it was a very different experience from what I imagined it would be. 

I envisioned that my mind would become completely focused and clear, or I would become a lot more relaxed, or my brain would start emitting those alpha brain waves, as my psychology teacher would say (shoutout to Mrs. Gardner). Or at the very least, I would become enlightened or something.

Instead, for the first 30 minutes, I just felt very stressed. I thought about all the stuff I could have been doing—my homework, eating dinner, or perhaps most importantly, scrolling aimlessly through social media. Since I couldn’t do any of that, I laid on my bed for a few moments despairing about all the homework I should have finished earlier, then proceeded to write a to-do list of tasks I needed to finish after my dopamine fast.

But as time passed, I felt my mindset begin to change. Being forced to do practically nothing was freeing in its own way, and I was able to revel in how slowly the time passed, a rare treat. I realized how much time I waste on a day-to-day basis—not just literal time, but the feeling of time too. I wasn’t allowed to do any work. I wasn’t allowed to scroll aimlessly through social media. I couldn’t look at my phone nor my laptop. I couldn’t expose myself to outside thoughts, at least for the time being.

The way time passed felt very different. Normally, I always feel like there’s not enough time during the day. But during my dopamine fast, I was able to revel in how slowly the time passed. It gave me time to think, really think. That dopamine fast was probably the most I’ve ever just thought in my life. I ruminated on the movie I’d seen the night before, questioned if Henry David Thoreau was an early pioneer of dopamine fasting, and wondered how I would write this column. I filled up four pages with writing, and also might have gone through an existential crisis. Or two.

It also made me realize how much time I normally waste. It felt like I had all the time in the world during my dopamine fast, and I realized how much time I waste when I do just aimlessly scroll through social media. Not just literally wasting time, but wasting the feeling of time too. I felt the existence time so much more deeply during my dopamine fast.

My hearing also became a lot more sensitive because of the silence I was forced to be in. I normally play music whenever possible, but after a couple of hours into the fast, I started to hear the hum of the electronics and lights in my room. I allowed myself to fold laundry, and even the sound of fabric was loud to my ears. It felt weird, how unaware I normally am. 

I did get hit with waves of boredom. I didn’t get hungry, but I wanted to eat just to be able to do something. My legs would start to automatically bounce whenever I wasn’t paying attention, maybe to make up for that lost dopamine. 

I also managed to meditate for a full twenty minutes. I’ve never meditated in silence before. It was very calming, and it was probably the first time in a while that my mind was able to relax with a blank slate. I think I did manage to reach those alpha brain waves.

In the end, I managed to accomplish a whole lot and nothing at the same time. It felt like a fever dream at some moments, but the way my brain was so focused yet relaxed is something I wouldn’t mind feeling again. I do think, though, that a 24-hour dopamine fast would truly be “enlightening,” whatever that means. I’ve added it to my bucket list, anyway.

And while I’ve never been the biggest fan of many self-care trends—personally, I find that a lot of them justify not doing work—dopamine fasting had the opposite effect. It made me so aware of how much time exists—and how much time I waste. It also forced me to check in with my thoughts. 

As stress ramps up with finals season, attempting a dopamine fast might seem daunting—but it isn’t necessarily the fast itself, so much as the concept of it, that I found helpful. Perhaps, try taking a few hours to avoid the constant intake of external stimuli and check-in with yourself. Your brain and body will thank you.

The views in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of the HiLite staff. Reach Grace Xu at [email protected]