The Science of Feeling Good

Stress relief: learn about the neurotransmitters and hormones which help you to feel good:

Serotonin

What is serotonin and what does it do?

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter which boosts mood and is often referred to as “the happiness hormone”
It regulates mood, and both prevents and relieves depression
It smooths emotions and mood, enabling people to feel more agreeable and sociable
Calms anxiety and eases the sense of tension
Lowers sensitivity to pain
Contributes to a feeling of inner satisfaction
It controls appetite and reduces cravings for foods, regulates compulsive eating
Prepares the body for sleep and plays a role in regulating the sleep-wake cycle
Helps to regulate body temperature

Low serotonin:

Low serotonin levels are associated with anxiety and symptoms often associated with mild and moderate depression:
Feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness, fatigue, fears
Feeling emotionally numb
A sense of isolation, sadness, guilt, tendency to withdraw / hide
A loss of interest in things, challenges feeling a sense of pleasure
Adoption of a bleak outlook, a sense that time passes slowly
The tendency to sit or lie around, apathy, pace slows down
Feeling under-stimulated and unmotivated
Disrupted sleep regulation: insomnia or sleeping frequently
If serotonin levels are low, sound sleep is near impossible
Loss of appetite or feel like eating all the time
Emotional and physical symptoms associated with PMS
Headaches, backaches, IBS, vague aches/pains
Thoughts of death

Ways to increase serotonin:

Exposure to sunlight produces vitamin D which then produces serotonin and feelings of happiness
One of the most effective ways to increase serotonin is low intensity aerobic exercise such as walking or light running
Serotonin remains circulating within the body for some time after light aerobic exercise
It is also produced in the body using the amino acid tryptophan
Tryptophan is found in a variety of foods including comforting high-carb foods and turkey
Tryptophan is also found in nuts, seeds, beans and a variety of other foods including black pepper
Increasing serotonin helps you to feel good and to feel happy, and likewise, doing things to help you feel good and happy helps you to increase your serotonin levels and can include:
Relaxation
Taking a warm shower when you wake up
Creating pleasant surroundings for yourself: decluttered, organized, visually appealing, calm, soothing living spaces
Mindfully preparing your favorite meal and slowly savouring it
Playing your favourite music or intentionally playing relaxing, inspiring or heartwarming music
Enjoying the company of good friends or family
Pampering yourself and really showing yourself kindness and caring
Aerobic exercise preferably in the fresh air such as walking, light running or cycling
Bringing routine and organization to your day-to-day life
Waking and getting up early and engaging in some movement on getting up
Meditating for even a few minutes to calm and declutter the mind
Making the decision to keep a positive mind set and positive attitude which directly contributes to serotonin levels

Dopamine

What is dopamine and what does it do?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, often called “the pleasure hormone”
It is associated with the reward system in the brain and plays a role in pleasure-seeking behaviour
Dopamine increases and is released when you identify your goal, focus on it and take steps to achieve your goal
Any goal-oriented thinking or behaviour will stimulate the production and release of dopamine, making you feel good
Is involved with the ramping up of motivation that sees you pursuing and following through on your goal in order to attain the reward
Helps you feel mentally alert and muster the energy and ability to act quickly
Helps with coordination, heart rate and vascular response
Plays a role in brain processes that control movement
Makes you more talkative and excitable
Impacts how you experience pleasure and pain
Helps endorphins to keep you feeling good despite stress or pain associated with fight or flight
Dopamine is the precursor for epinephrine (adrenalin) so these neurotransmitters act in concert to promote feelings of alertness and happiness in situations where you need to take action

Low dopamine:

Lack of attention
Distraction
Difficulty concentrating
Bad moods
A sense of under-stimulation
Low levels of dopamine mean it’s function as a precursor for epinephrine is compromised:
Low motivation, lack of drive, lack of focus
Body is not optimally primed to take action when needed to execute and follow through on tasks

Ways to increase dopamine:

Setting goals whether they be major long term goals or short term goals relevant to today, this week or this month
Structuring your lifestyle to include a sense of purpose
Exercising with a goal in mind – specifying a route, distance or time prior to starting
Meditating with a goal in mind – specifying the amount of time you will meditate before starting
Working and studying with a goal in mind as opposed to starting with an “open plan” – concentration and focus increase within specified parameters
Eating high protein foods
Light aerobic exercise increases dopamine levels and contributes to feelings of happiness during and after the exercise

Too much dopamine:

Addiction in that the brain’s reward system is out of kilter
Addiction to drugs, alcohol, caffeine, video games, shopping – any substance and behavioural process addictions
Pursuing every goal full-tilt as if every goal large or small were important and meaningful
Difficulties distinguishing between urgent and important tasks – treating everything as if it’s urgent
Addiction to perfection such as getting straight A’s in school
Addiction to perfection related to appearance
Dopamine is at play in any addictive behaviour where you are dependent on that “hit”
Addiction to your To-Do List…
Overworking, multitasking, workaholism

Endorphins

What are endorphins and what do they do?

Endorphins are neurotransmitters and there are over twenty different kinds of them
The origin of the word “endorphin” is a combination of “endogenous” and “morphine”
One of the endorphins – beta-endorphin – is stronger than morphine
They are produced in the pituitary gland and in the central nervous system and lock onto opioid receptors in the brain
They are produced in response to fear, pain or stress
May produce feelings of euphoria akin to opioids but are not addictive as are opioids
Endorphins are natural pain killers and allow you to push through pain
They reduce anxiety and sensitivity to pain
They reduce and relieve stress
Play a role in your experience of pleasure – let you know when you’ve had enough of a good thing such as food, sex or companionship
Moderate your appetite – endorphins kick in to let you know when you have eaten enough
Increase the immune response
Responsible for the “runner’s high” good feeling during intense or prolonged aerobic exercise
They are the active ingredient responsible for any benefits behind the “placebo effect”

Levels of endorphins can be increased by the following stimuli:

Endorphins make you feel great but individual responses vary depending on the stimuli, so identify which stimuli produce endorphins for you
Endorphins ramp up and have you feeling good as the result of your anticipating something pleasurable
They are stimulated in sudden, intense anaerobic exercise (fight-flight response) to increase chances of survival despite pain
They are produced in sustained, prolonged aerobic exercise such as cross-country running or skiing
Exposure to UV light
Meditation
Breathing exercises as in meditation, tai chi, yoga
Acupuncture
Massage therapy
Listening to music
Eating foods such as chocolate
Eating very spicy foods sends a signal to the brain akin to pain, stimulating the brain to release endorphins in response
Also can be stimulated by laughter
Produced during childbirth to buffer the pain
Be mindful of “overdoing it” and moderate your response to the effect of endorphins you experience – more is not necessarily better
Endorphins are really about the fight-flight response, about helping the body to survive in times of threat or extreme distress, so if or when the body is flooded with endorphins, it naturally assumes that something life-threatening is going to happen very soon…

Upset or out-of-kilter levels or release of endorphins:

Moodiness, anxiety, depression
Since endorphins play a role in the experience of pleasure, low levels might leave you feeling unsure of when you’ve had enough of a good thing
Upset levels of endorphins lead to the tendency to “overdo it”, “not knowing when to stop”
Play a role in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) due to the lack of sense of satisfaction on having completed something
Also contribute to the intrusive thoughts of OCD and overwhelming fears
Heightened states of rage or anxiety due to endorphins “overdoing it” and triggering the fight-or-flight response at the drop of a hat
Impulse control issues related to a quick hit of endorphins due to the brain producing them too readily
In impulse control situations, the rush of endorphins released by the activity is too great to resist, and you don’t know when to stop…
Lack of impulse control: always losing temper at the drop of the hat, consistently demonstrating a “short fuse”
Lack of impulse control: stealing (kleptomania), setting fires (pyromania), pulling out hair
Lack of impulse control: shopping addictions, Internet addiction, sex, gambling
Compulsive picking at skin / face / nails / toes
Compulsive talking, lying
Compulsive eating

Others…

Oxytocin:

This is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone
Often called “the love hormone”
It is related to sense of life satisfaction
Being kind to others stimulates it
Stress blocks the release of it.
It is released on physical contact such as massage, hugs, interaction with pets, emotional and physical “strokes”
Contributes to feelings of love, trust, happiness and a sense of emotional well being

GABA:

Gamma Amino Butyric Acid
This is found throughout central nervous system and plays a role in reducing stress, anxiety, panic and pain
Helps you to feel calm, maintain control and focus

Enkephalins:

Restrict transmission of pain, reduce craving, reduce depression.

Acetylcholine:

Contributes to alertness, memory, sexual performance, appetite control, release of growth hormone

Phenylethamine:

This is a hormone that contributes to the feelings you get in the early stages of a relationship
Feelings of bliss
Found in cocoa beans and chocolate
Plays a role in feelings of infatuation, having a crush on someone, and feeling good due to thinking about them

Ghrelin:

This is a hormone that reduces stress and helps you relax
It is released when you are hungry
Eating too much shuts down this hormone and so then you feel stressed and have the sense that it is difficult to relax
Staying hungry or not over eating, or eating to 80% fullness helps keep this hormone active and circulating

Melatonin:

A brain hormone produced by the pineal gland
It is produced using tryptophan
Prevents the “blues”
Released by darkness and suppressed by light

Anandamide:

“Ananda” is the Sanskrit word for “bliss”
Anandamide is a group of molecules with an affinity for the cannabinoid receptors in the brain
Produced in areas of the brain associated with higher thought function
Plays a role in feelings of sedation and calmness
Has a limiting effect on short term memory
Produces short little sparks of bliss, feeling good or quick short bursts of feelings of “love”

No, we are not just a bag of chemicals…

Interestingly, neurotransmitters and hormones interact and “create” what we call “feelings”.  What we “feel” is the neurotransmitter / hormone combo of the moment.  So we can consider that what we call the “self” is not the actual neurotransmitters and hormones themselves.  In other words, “we” are not “our feelings”.  Instead, it might be the case that we are that which decides, which chooses, which makes a choice in the moment.  There are many aspects to effective stress management – there are many facets to the solution – and all solutions involve making aware, active choices.

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