Take a (Dopamine) Holiday

We’ve covered a lot of topics over the last few months on stress and how bad it is for you, so let’s flip this vinyl over and play the tunes on the other side, the happy, relaxing, good feelings in our brain. 

It’s no secret that taking a break for a few minutes or a few weeks from the daily grind feels great; it’s good for your head, and the rest of you, too. Those warm, fuzzy vibes we get from stuff we like are based on a little chemical called “dopamine,” which we’ve spent some time on in the past. Dopamine is known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter and is one of the chemicals that “transmit” information between nerve cells; that’s where the name comes from. It was found in the brain back in the early 1950s by Swedish scientist Arvid Carlsson, who won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his lifelong study of dopamine and showing its importance in brain function. It makes sense from an evolutionary point of view to have something floating around up there that makes you feel good and pushes you toward things that are pleasurable but more importantly, beneficial. Dopamine causes you to want to seek out good things, it drives desires, and it drove our ancient ancestors to hunt, eat, shelter, and make more ancestors. But before getting too far into it, I need to give all of you out there a “trigger warning” about the buzz kill that’s also coming. Like a lot of things in life, too much of a good thing, like those dopamine rushes, isn’t always good.

The brain releases dopamine-generating feelings of pleasure and satisfaction when we do anything we like to do. It’s our basic inbred reward system that gives us those cozy feelings when things go well. It has even been linked to internal rewards we experience from volunteer work, charitable donations, and gift giving. In its official role as the feel-good chemical, dopamine improves your mood and aids in motivation and attention, which facilitate learning. It also enhances our level of arousal and has been linked to curiosity and a search for information, training, and knowledge. Dopamine creates the desire for reward seeking that leads us to repeat pleasurable behavior, and it’s these high levels of dopamine that lead us to seek out those happy sensations. The good thing about sensation seeking is that it tends to lead us to view stressors as challenges to be overcome rather than threats that might be defeating. This is the essence of a mindset that’s a buffer against the stresses of our daily grind. In the long term, it can increase our hardiness and resilience.

Therein lies the problem of dopamine and the dark side of this feel-good chemical. It’s just because dopamine makes us feel so good that we can get “addicted” to it, and consequently addicted to the behaviors, good and bad, that bring on our dopamine rush. The rush we feel from our own dopamine addiction driving us to repeat behaviors that bring it on is sometimes like being on a freight train hurtling down the tracks. But it’s so powerful that we can totally lose control over it, and the behaviors that bring it on can get out of hand. To maintain our mental and physical health we have to slow it down and stop the dopamine train or it will run over us. One of my favorite songwriters, John Mayer, has a great tune with just that thought,Stop this Train:”


Oh, come on, stop this train
I want to get off and go home again
I can’t take the speed it’s moving in
I know I can’t
But honestly, won’t someone stop this train?


Stopping the dopamine train we’re on and the madness of our current existence is a great idea; healthy too. It’s also related to our last topic on stress since there’s data that shows taking a break from the dopamine rush can significantly reduce stress levels and promote a healthy lifestyle. Someone has to stop the train, but the obvious question is, “How?” There’re several recent research studies on addressing this crush of the dopamine train we’re riding and controlling it with something that’s been labeled thedopamine holiday.Dr. Anna Lembke, MD, who is a professor and Medical Director of Addiction Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine, is one of the world’s leading experts in this field and has written two great books on this for those who want to take a deeper dive into this important topic: Dopamine Nation,” and “Dopamine Nation Workbook.” She has also been very generous with her time and expertise to discuss this with me and help me understand the subtleties and issues involved.

She told me, “The biological definition of stress is any deviation from baseline homeostasis. Any time we indulge in a highly rewarding substance or behavior, we increase dopamine firing above baseline in the brain’s reward pathway, requiring our brain to do work (stress) to bring those levels back to baseline. A certain amount of stress is healthy, but too much is not. Many of us living in the modern world are consuming high dopamine-triggering substances and behaviors all day every day, from our cup of caffeine in the morning and repeatedly checking our smartphones all day, to our cocktails and Netflix shows at night. A dopamine ‘fast’ is a way to cut out one or more ‘intoxicants’ (things that give us pleasure) for 30 days as a way to give our brains a break and reset reward pathways.” But she went on to caution that giving up your dopamine rush isn’t easy. “The first 10-14 days tend to be difficult as we experience a kind of withdrawal, usually in the form of more anxiety, irritability, dysphoria (bad feelings), insomnia, and craving, but by 30 days most of us experience improvements in well-being, as well as the ability to take pleasure in other more modest rewards.”

As I said at the outset, too much of a good thing can sometimes be bad, but breaking the habit can be harder. Enjoy your dopamine feasts—to a reasonable limit—but consider taking a break from your dopamine high once in a while. Take a “holiday” from the Internet, social media, cell phones, and the interminable 24/7 news cycles we’re bombarded with. Instead, jump into your airplane and take a vacation. Another of my favorite artists, Jimmy Buffett, who flew airplanes and sailed boats, had a great take on this in his old tune,Take a Holiday.Maybe we could rename it “Take a Dopamine Holiday”:


Is it a fever or depression, anger or aggression?
What’s the remedy?
We’re not talking rocket science
The answer to your question’s very plain to see

You need a holiday
Take a holiday
Find a far-off wonderland
Where you might regain command of your life today

So take a holiday
You need a holiday
Grab a pack and hit the trail
Take a sail and wind up in some moonlit bay.


Jimmy’s lyrics are spot on and it’s all very good advice—play hard, work hard, but rest hard too. It’s “very plain to see” that we need our dopamine highs, something we get from daily life, even from flying our airplanes, but we also need to let it go and stop the dopamine train once in a while to reduce our stress and improve our health and safety. So take a vacation and give yourself a break from the mess and stress of our world occasionally. It’ll do you wonders and help you stay safe in the sky.

Kenneth Stahl, MD, FACS
Kenneth Stahl, MD, FACS is an expert in principles of aviation safety and has adapted those lessons to healthcare and industry for maximizing patient safety and minimizing human error. He also writes and teaches pilot and patient safety principles and error avoidance. He is triple board-certified in cardiac surgery, trauma surgery/surgical critical care and general surgery. Dr. Stahl holds an active ATP certification and a 25-year member of the AOPA with thousands of hours as pilot in command in multiple airframes. He serves on the AOPA Board of Aviation Medical Advisors and is a published author with numerous peer reviewed journal and medical textbook contributions. Dr. Stahl practices surgery and is active in writing and industry consulting. He can be reached at [email protected].

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