As humans we are wired to seek comfort.
It’s in our DNA to crave high sugar foods, social recognition and security in all forms.
These things are meant to make us happy – but it doesn’t take a social scientist to understand that having unlimited access to all the things that make us safe and comfortable does not make for happy humans.
I recently came across the concept of dopamine fasting from a Nathaniel Drew video, a fellow YouTuber – and as I watched the video I realised that it was very similar to something I used to do in the mountains years ago…
When I saw the video I was immediately inspired to get out and do it again. In this post I share the details of this practice with you. My aim is to give you an insight into my experience and a practical guide for getting started with this practice if you’re interested in doing it yourself.
I think it could be very helpful for you if you are interested in building mental strength, but also, if you are interested in mountaineering (in my experience the two are highly interrelated).
So let’s dive into what Dopamine is and why we would want to “fast” from it.
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is generally associated with the reward centres of the brain and its role in pleasure, motivation, focus and emotional resilience among other things.
Dopamine is inherently present in the brain, and it’s not something one can really eliminate or actually fast from, so don’t get too caught up in the literal meaning. This is just the language that has been used to describe this practice.
In reality “dopamine fast” is simply a buzzword, that really just represents a break from potentially problematic behaviour. And while you might not consider any of your behaviour to be especially problematic, it’s sometimes nice just to take a real break from technology, to help you get in touch with what is really important.
And what better place to do that, then in the mountains.
Now you might well be thinking, what on earth has this got to do with mountaineering, hiking, climbing and fitness?
Well, this practice is basically a method of cultivating mental strength, something that is absolutely necessary in all types of mountaineering and fitness pursuits, but also in regular life.
A common question I get is how can I build mental strength for mountaineering? Here’s my answer – a good place to start building mental strength is by gaining a deeper understanding of your relationship with comfort.
And a huge part of this practice is about voluntarily being uncomfortable and understanding how that affects you.
If you want to build the mental strength to go further into the world of mountaineering then I think it’s necessary to evaluate your relationship with both comfort and suffering first.
Are you comfortable being uncomfortable? Are you able to enjoy suffering? If so, you’ll be safer and more confident in the mountains.
Why Do a Dopamine Fast In The Mountains?
A lot of the videos I’ve seen or articles I’ve read lately about dopamine fasting, involved people performing it at home, which unless you live alone, is going to be problematic. If you have housemates, or a family then getting out into nature might be a good idea.
That’s one of the three main reasons why I decided to take this practice out into the mountains.
The second reason is that being out of the house takes the temptation out of the equation completely (it’s pretty hard to open the fridge when you’re on the side of a cliff).
And the third and most powerful reason is that being in nature, the mountains especially, has a cleansing quality to it. I wanted to harness and combine that with the best elements of dopamine fasting.
The only real downside to the mountain fast is that you do need a few items of gear to keep you in relative comfort, namely a good sleeping bag and mat. You don’t want to be so uncomfortable that your safety is put at risk – the point of this is to be relaxed and calm to allow clarity of mind.
Do I recommend trying a Dopamine Fast in the Mountains?
There are a few elements here that we are combining that are potentially dangerous without experience, such as wild camping, fasting and hiking alone.
If you have done all of these 3 things independently of one another already, I would say you are capable of trying out a dopamine fast in the mountains. If you haven’t you probably should be comfortable doing all of these elements one at a time first. Here are some suggestions.
If you have never done a fast, try intermittent fasting, such as not eating from waking up until about midday. Then stretch this out until 3pm, 6pm and so forth until you are comfortable doing it for 24 hours.
If you’re not comfortable wild camping, take a hike with some friends to a place that is a short walk from your car, figure out what you need to make it work. You can then try doing this alone and gradually go into more remote areas.
If you haven’t ever hiked alone, you should first try doing short walks and build up from there.
Finally, if you think you’re unlikely to ever do a 24-hour dopamine fast either at home or in the mountains, I think it would be useful to experiment. Choose a morning, afternoon or evening where you fast from, food, technology, social interaction and other stimulus to ‘dip your toes’ into the practice and see what you get out of it.
If you’re already someone who is comfortable being in the outdoors overnight and doing it alone, and if you have some experience fasting already, then why not go and try the real deal!
What do you need to do a dopamine fast?
The main thing you need is a quiet, peaceful place where you won’t be disturbed. As you’ll see in the video, I chose my nearby mountain of Montserrat, which is perfect as it’s huge, has many valleys, peaks and caves to hide away from others. When I lived in Australia I had a few different locations but it was generally Mt Barney or Mt. Beerwah.
The gear you need: Here’s my packing list:
- Water (I took about 3 litres for 24 hours, take more if you’re doing it in summer)
- Warm clothes (lack of food means you’ll be colder than usual)
- Sleeping mat
- Sleeping bag
- Gas and Jetboil for hot water (if in winter)
- My journal and a pen
- Phone (as an emergency precaution – turned off, put it in the bottom of your bag!)
You can check out some of this gear in My Sleep System Kit here: https://kit.co/ChaseMountains/my-sleep-system
Tent or tent floor
A tent floor – I planned to find a cave to sleep in as opposed to setting up a tent so I just packed the floor to keep my things clean. I could also wrap myself up in it if the weather got a bit wild. But I checked the forecast and it was all clear. I use mountain-forecast.com for weather reports.
The only food I brought with me was lemons. I believe a traditional dopamine fast has only water, but I’ve always done fasting in the past with lemons because it feels cleansing and it does give me one small thing to look forward to.
What happened on my Dopamine Mountain Fast?
You can watch the video here… which turned out a little more arty than I was intending.
Here are the 5 questions:
What am I feeling? Is it pain, discomfort?
Sometimes this can be emotional discomfort, sometimes it manifests itself in slight physical pain. It also helps you understand your body, where you are tight and sore. What parts of your body are uncomfortable for you when you are just sitting?
Why do I feel this way?
Again, we lament on and write about what is the cause of the pain, be it physical or emotional. Do you need to move more? stretch more? would it help to keep a journal of your thoughts? What is lacking in your life to make you feel what you are feeling? These are just some examples, it’s best to just write and see what comes out!
What actions can I take to fix it?
Write down what actual steps you can take in order to address these feelings. How can you change what you want to change in your life – if nothing was holding you back what would you do? What are you passionate about and how can you pursue it? What are the specific actions steps you need to take to stop feeling this way?
What would life be like if I didn’t take these actions?
Imagine what your life would be like in a year from now if you took none of the actions above. Perhaps nothing would change, perhaps things could get worse. Ponder this and imagine vividly what your life would be like in the future if you changed nothing.
What would life be like if I did take that action?
What are the future possibilities for you if you did take this action? How will your life change from integrating these changes? How will you be feeling a year from now if you made these changes?
Over the course of the next 24 hours, I revisited these questions, scribbling down notes in my journal. When I got home, I opened my calendar and I dumped all my action steps into the following weeks and set time aside to review my week and plan for the coming weeks.
The results of my Dopamine Fast
For me, this particular dopamine fast was about me re-acquainting myself with this practice that used to be an important part of my life. I also came to ponder the direction of my YouTube channel and my business and to work on redefining my purpose both for the business and for myself. I wanted to come back with a clear definition of what the purpose of it is…and a why.
As you’ll note at the end of the video, I came out of the fast with a clear set of steps of what I wanted to improve in my life and exactly how to do it. I also really nailed down my purpose, which for a creative business owner, finally feels very very good.
My purpose is to help you prepare your mind, body and gear so you can challenge yourself to go further in the mountains and to grow from that experience.
I do this because my goal is to reduce humanity’s indifference to nature. There are 7 billion people on this earth, most of them live in large cities, and their connection to the natural world grows weaker. I want to connect with those people through stories and I want to inspire them to get outside, challenge themselves and connect with nature.
I believe that people come back from the mountains, more balanced, more connected to the natural world and therefore they are more likely to take action to preserve and care for it.
This kind of clarity with my purpose and my goals really brings deeper meaning and direction to my everyday life.
I have some big goals for 2020, some serious challenges ahead of me and I look forward to sharing them with you along the way.
I hope this little post helps you along your journey.
I’ll see you on the summit.