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The Good in Giving Up

Caffeine and Other Chemicals

Text and Image Miranda Tate

My mum, in true Scandinavian fashion, drinks black coffee day round to ritualise her mornings, keep her sharp throughout the day, and after dinner to get cosy in front of the fireplace. For her, it has a calming power. For me, it does the opposite. My hands shake, background noises steal my attention, my stomach rumbles, and at night I’ll lay awake for an hour or two as my mind races. The gene needed to handle that amount of stimulation must have skipped a generation. So I’ve decided to quit coffee. However, coffee is one of the weaker stimulants in my life.

Overstimulation is probably a familiar sensation to you as well. At a dizzying pace, we scroll online and consume bite-sized amounts of the most aesthetic bits of others’ lives and information on the worst events happening in the world, often one after the other. All are curated to stimulate the subconscious, seizing and sabotaging your attention.

I wonder if my mum felt like time was collapsing in on her as well at this age. Lately, I am always overwhelmed. At first, I questioned if I was missing a certain aptitude for adulthood, maybe my brain was just adjusting to the new responsibilities of reality. I feel a strong pressure to do everything right this moment, get any accolade I can, and be productive at all waking hours. The place this discourse most presses in on me is also where I run to escape it; social media.

Dopamine links our drive to complete a goal with the feeling of reward we experience once it's completed. When we repeatedly uncouple these two, we lose our drive to go after what we want. If we can get the same gratification, the same chemical hit that signals to our brains that we have reached our destination and done something worthwhile, by letting the next video autoplay, then we might as well stay in and never set out on the journey in the first place.

For me, the pressure to succeed is accompanied by dread; there are not enough hours in a day to do everything that I feel is expected of me. As a result, I often lie paralyzed, eyes glued to my phone screen. Not much comes from this consumption besides a collection of new markers and thresholds of success I feel I should meet.

I’m taking the small step of recalibrating my reward system by limiting stimuli that bring me a rush without my having done any work, and I’m not alone in this. The consequences of the monopolising of our attention spans have been taken up within online discourses around the topic of self-improvement. Young people feel that their prime hours and prime years are being stolen from them. A dopamine detox has been proposed as a solution. As a concept, it involves limiting exposure to stimuli that raises your dopamine level without requiring a real sense of hard work and reward. As a practice, it means a commitment to implementing habits that are good for you even when the reward is not as instantaneous as one is used to.

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