How to help your patients realize that they need a dopamine detox

By Julia Ries | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published June 13, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Patients often use activities like scrolling social media to replace feelings like anger, boredom, or stress.

  • Helping your patients identify their feelings can help them stop scrolling or other behavior, giving them quick dopamine fixes.

  • Changing this behavior takes time, and patients may struggle.

In today’s fast-paced, technology-focused world, it’s all too easy for us to become hooked to our devices. Our screens are a source of constant entertainment. Many of us spend hours upon hours each day locked into social media platforms like TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram—or glued to online shopping, gaming, or gambling platforms. 

It’s well-known that our brains are wired to seek out rewarding experiences. When we engage in certain activities, like eating, drinking, exercising, and interacting with others, the brain releases dopamine—the “feel-good” hormone—which keeps us coming back for more. With healthy amounts of dopamine, people feel happy, motivated, and alert—but too much can bring on feelings of restlessness, aggressiveness, and poor impulse control.[][] 

Olivia Grace, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in internet gaming disorder at The Mindful Gamer, says that given the influx of social media apps and the lure of online shopping, it’s no wonder that so many people are finding themselves excessively scrolling and spending. The excessive amount of content and entertainment available on our devices has hijacked the brain’s reward system—dopamine is always in reach. The instant gratification these activities provide hits the brain’s reward system like a jackpot, she says.

“This bombardment can overstimulate our brain's production of dopamine—the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward—and create addictive patterns that can be difficult to break,” Grace tells MDLinx

Below are a few ways that mental health professionals can provide support, guidance, and advice to patients who’ve become addicted to the dopamine rush that their devices offer. 

Help your patients recognize what’s driving their behavior

John Dolores, PhD, a clinical psychologist and COO of Bespoke Treatment, recommends first helping your patients become more aware of their unhealthy habits through self-monitoring techniques, such as using a habit-tracking journal. “With a pen and a piece of paper, individuals can document a detailed account of their condition by journaling every time they engage in their dopamine fixes, describing the time of occurrence, the frequency, their companions or location, and the trigger that urged them to engage in their toxic behavior,” Dolores says. 

Doing so will build self-awareness and give your patients the tools to see what pushes them to open up TikTok, for example, or start online shopping. This self-reflection will help people gain insight into their behavior and better understand the motivations behind it, says Harold Hong, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist at New Waters Recovery in Raleigh, NC. 

Teach your patients new coping strategies

Grace says that people often resort to social media as a coping mechanism for stress, anxiety, or boredom. Coping strategies are meant to help people work through negative emotions; however, screens help people avoid or escape their problems rather than healthily manage and deal with them.[] 

Once patients become aware of their triggers—through journaling, self-reflection, or mindfulness—they can develop new, healthier coping strategies to practice when negative emotions arise. “Deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, physical activity, or reaching out to a friend can be far more effective in managing stress and promoting overall well-being,” says Grace.[]

Motivate your patient to experiment with other activities 

Once you and your patient have identified the thoughts, emotions, and beliefs—such as boredom or anger—that cause them to seek out a quick dopamine fix, whip up an alternative plan of action for when they feel these emotions festering. “Once the driving forces are identified, the patient may be urged to try an alternative activity in place of their bad habit to evaluate whether that can offer satisfaction or correct unhealthy perceptions,” says Dolores.[] 

For example, if your patient notices that they tend to shop online whenever they are bored, encourage them to read a book or go on a walk instead. The idea is to replace old habits, like online gambling, with new ones that are rewarding in more sustainable and fulfilling ways, says Grace.[] 

Have your patient experiment with different activities until they find something that clicks, Dolores recommends. Not only will this build your patient’s self-awareness, it will also help better guide your clients toward making healthier choices, he adds.

Have your patient limit their ability to access certain apps 

Another option is to introduce restrictions or obstacles that will limit your patient’s ability to seek out dopamine fixes. Advise your patients to delete the apps they crave most from their phone and to only access them from a computer browser, says Dolores. You can also coach them to leave their phone in another room so that they can adequately unplug from time to time, advises Hong.[] 

Limiting access can be a powerful step in breaking the cycle instead of eliminating access to everything they crave—whether it be online gaming, gambling apps, or TikTok—cold turkey. “Making the habit as awkward as possible, without banning it, can break the vicious cycle and refresh the brain,” he says.

Again, this will help your patients better recognize when and why they’re always reaching for their phone so that they can take another action instead. “This interrupts the habitual and physical mechanics that play into the dopaminergic processes where they immediately go into their phone, open the app, and get the ‘fix’ they’re looking for,” says Dolores. 

Help patients set timers or reminders 

Hong recommends encouraging your patients to set timers or reminders that will alert them to log off of social media or stop shopping online after a set period of time. Timers will help them track exactly how long they’ve been using their devices and prevent overuse or addiction.[] 

“Having a scheduled time of day when they unplug from technology and engage in other activities can be a great way to stay mindful of their screen time usage,” says Hong. 

Coach your patients to start slow and buddy up

With all of these tactics, it may be beneficial to start slow and small and gradually ramp up. Grace says that setting manageable, incremental goals can be more effective. Start by having your patient reduce their social media use by 30 minutes daily; once they can tolerate that, increase it to an hour. “As small as it seems, it's a step in the right direction and often more sustainable than attempting a complete digital detox all at once,” Grace says. 

In addition, it may be worth encouraging your patients to find an accountability buddy who can “help them stay off the phone or set up rewards for themselves when they reach certain goals,” says Hong. By teaming up with friends, colleagues, or family members, patients can feel motivated to stick to their goals. Not to mention, having companionship can make the process far more enjoyable, Grace adds.[]

Finally, let your patients see that change will take time. “This isn't a sprint, it's a marathon,” says Grace. Regularly check in with your patients, adjust the plan if need be, and celebrate their victories—no matter how big or small.

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