The Dopamine Detox; Why the holidays are the perfect time to restore your balance.

November 2021

By Mark Hinchcliffe, Senior Partner, Fishbird


When I was a kid, the last three months of the year were calendar bliss. The joy of understanding that Halloween rolled into Thanksgiving, which rolled into Christmas, was a gift from the gods. Each holiday a feast for the senses — so much so that when the last present was unwrapped on Christmas Day, there was a true feeling of letdown. The fun months of eating, vacationing, socializing and relaxing were over; the cold reality of January staring me in the face.

Thirty years after those glorified days of childhood, the holidays don’t have the same hook in me as they used to. Now there’s a different emotional trigger in my life now that encompasses the entire calendar year: my phone. Unlike any device before, the modern smartphone has created a world flooded with dopamine, the neurotransmitter in our brains associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. When we do something we enjoy, like eat dessert, play a video game, or get a ‘like’ on social media, our brains release a little bit of dopamine and we feel good (something my kid brain understood innately but couldn’t articulate). This is the reason we seek out pleasurable activities: our brains are constantly rewarding us for these experiences.

One of the greatest psychological findings of the last 75 years was that pleasure and pain are processed in the same parts of the brain. So whenever the scales tip to one side, our brains do their best to find balance again, also known as homeostasis. This is why pleasure (Christmas Day!) is usually followed by an emotional hangover (January). Our brains are finding balance by shutting down dopamine receptors in our brain. If we wait long enough, the hangover/letdown feelings pass and neutrality is restored. There’s the tendency, though, to go back to our sources of pleasure for another dose. And that dose needs to be a bigger one, to feel the same feelings as before.

As a kid, there was no choice but to experience the post-holiday letdown. I didn’t have a dopamine creator in my pocket. Now I do, along with about 5 billion other people in the world. And as our apps have become ever more finely-tuned to maintain our attention and keep us engaged with asymmetric rewards, we have increasingly become a society that feels much higher highs and much lower lows. This dramatic swing in our emotional state has led to one of the largest growing causes of depression, stress, and anxiety in the modern world: we’re drowning in dopamine, and we don’t know where the lifeboats are.

So as we enter the holidays, the ability to create moments away from our devices is as important as ever. The end of the year is already a time of eating and drinking too much, familial stress, and financial concerns — we don’t need the added effects of unconscious screen time. Consider a dopamine detox for the months of November and December to stay emotionally balanced for yourself and others. Below are some suggestions to incorporate time away from devices into your days.

  1. Get outside (without your phone) – Taking the dog for a walk or hitting a trail is a perfect opportunity to get grounded. But all the benefits of being in nature go right out the window if all we’re doing is staring at our phones while we walk. Leave the phone at home or in the car and enjoy the freedom of being outside without any attachments. You’ll come back feeling refreshed and clear-headed.
  2. Don’t post until the party’s over – Sharing your holidays with family and friends via social media is a wonderful way to stay close during this time of year, but the posting can wait until after the get-together. Take your photos, be present with your loved ones, and when you return home, choose your favorite images to put up on your feed. You’ll be removed from the emotion of the moment, and less likely to get caught up scrolling during your get together.
  3. Set an eating/drinking intention – Before the holiday festivities begin, being conscious of how much you want to eat and drink can be a powerful regulator. Perhaps it’s sticking to one slice of pie, or to a couple of drinks. This isn’t about sacrifice or depriving yourself – it’s about clarifying what’s important to you. The short-term dopamine hit of good food wears off quickly. How do you want to feel overall?
  4. Slow it down to find the gratitude – Holidays can often feel like a whirlwind of action. By slowing down the pace, whether at a meal or during the unwrapping of gifts, you can create a calm that allows for everyone to be in the moment, focusing on what’s happening instead of mentally rushing into what’s next. The spaces between the action allow for reflection and gratitude – reminders of what this time of year is really all about.



Mark Hinchliffe is a senior partner in Fishbird, an ontological design studio that generates authenticity and transformation in the post digital age. Based in Asbury Park, Fishbird is opening its first clinical therapy practice in Rumson this October.