Wake up. Check phone. Read (yet another) sad/disturbing/off-putting news story. And then expect to have a great day… NOT!
I’ve written a lot about the importance of starting our day on the “right foot,” as they say. What we do in the morning sets us up mentally, physically, and spiritually for the rest of the day. So if we start on our screens, we’re even more likely to continue on them, sometimes to the exclusion of everything and everyone else around us. We can find ourselves obsessing over what’s happening “out there” on social media or the latest gossip story… and when we do look up, we’re all too often seeking gratification in other forms of excess as well.
We can snap our fingers and get pretty much anything (think Amazon: order today, get it today!). We have endless food and drink choices (What will it be? Your usual vanilla latte? Or would you prefer our new Pumpkin-Spice-Candy-Apple Americano?). And, no matter what we have, we always seem to want more.
The fact is, we’re all a little (or a lot) addicted. But why?
The answer may be nuanced, but it is at least in part related to dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that makes us feel good. And each time we feel rewarded–with new information, entertainment, or positive reinforcements of any kind, our brains release more. Whether it’s a quick email or Insta check (they’re responding! they like me!), a funny YouTube video, or another heady drip, we’re seeking it. Craving it. And when we want it, we want it NOW. But there’s a darker side to dopamine when we come to rely on it constantly.
Dr. Anna Lembke, author of Dopamine Nation, notes that “one of the most important [recent] discoveries in neuroscience….is that pleasure and pain are co-located.” In other words, the two constantly strive to maintain a center point, or equilibrium (technically known as homeostasis). So, when we’re tipped too far in one direction, our brains try to compensate by sending us to the equal but opposite state or emotion.
Think of how this plays out as humans increasingly expect a constant stream of instant pleasure. (Another case in point: there are currently over 17,000 titles on Netflix alone. It’s a dopamine dispenser that never runs dry!) And if balance is our brain’s goal amidst all this pleasure, it’s no wonder that depression and anxiety have reached the highest levels in history–up around 25% among young people since 2016. And the plot thickens when we consider how elusive that balance can be.
Because as addictions play out, the more we feed them, the more we become dependent on the latest increase just to feel normal. We began to rely on those “likes” or funny videos or emails or shopping clicks just to make us feel okay at every turn: as we wait in line at the grocery store, sit on a subway, or even stop at a traffic light.
So how do we look away? How do we reset our sense of balance and give the spotlight back to the present moment… to that sense of well-being and connection that doesn’t rely on the next “fix”? One of Dr. Lembke’s therapies is what she calls a “dopamine fast,” which, for her patients, means no screens for a month! This practice has led to less anxiety and depression among participants. While such a departure may feel too daunting for some of us, we can all gain from rethinking our relationship with technology and that instant gratification mindset.
Writer Stephen Altrogge encourages us to examine our default behaviors. Even small shifts in our personal “status quo” can make a difference. According to Altrogge, 84% of people keep their email inboxes open all day. In other words, many of us live in a state of perpetual availability to anyone on our contact list. Instead, he suggests that we set times when we are simply unavailable. He recommends relegating our screen time to short bursts: check email and social, respond to timely texts, and then put… down… the… phone (or computer). Schedule face-to-face time with someone, take a walk, and immerse yourself in your surroundings. The more we practice resetting our less productive default behaviors, the more we’ll regain that equilibrium.
Remember the biblical story about the battle between King David and the giant Goliath? The Zohar says that what empowered David to win wasn’t his physical might but rather his courage in facing and conquering the darkness within himself. We can all overcome our addictions, big or small. Of course, I am not overlooking the serious and harmful addictions people have that require medical attention and always encourage professional help when needed.
Remember, we are each like a slab of clay. We have the power to sculpt ourselves in any way we choose. We can decide to connect more and to be more present. We can choose to reveal more of our light, or to hide in someone else’s. And we can watch everyone else’s movies… or look up, look around, and take a starring role in our own!