Brain Hacks for Feeling Good
Days are getting shorter and potentially gloomier (especially if you live in the Pittsburgh area). It’s the perfect time to learn about small things you can do throughout your day that can boost the “feel-good” brain chemicals you have built in. And no, we are not talking about any illicit substances in this blog. 😊 Even if your self-care routine is pretty much on point, it never hurts to check in to see if there are any areas in your life (and your brain) that may need a little extra boost. We will focus today on those small things that can make your life even the tiniest bit more enjoyable—and who wouldn’t want that?
Neurotransmitters/Neurochemicals (brain chemicals) and What They Do
We aren’t going to dive too deep into a biopsychology lesson, but suffice it to say that your brain is an amazing organ that uses chemical signals to communicate between its different parts and the many different parts of your body. Ever wonder why it feels so good to hug someone you have a crush on, to eat a decadent slice of double fudge cake, or to finish up a killer workout? The chemicals in your brain ensure an enjoyable experience by delivering messages that affect you both physically and psychologically. Sometimes people who experience more chronic distress/depression, for example, have levels of these chemicals that aren’t working for them. This is why some people decide to take medication for depression and other psychological conditions—many medications can directly affect the levels of these chemicals in the brain!
Common neurotransmitters/chemicals that affect the brain, and subsequently how you feel
- Dopamine (reward)
- Serotonin (mood)
- Oxytocin (love)
- Endorphins (pain killer)
The combination of all of these chemicals can affect how you are feeling in any given moment, but we will spend a bit of time on each so you will know how to “hack” each particular brain chemical if you find yourself in need of a boost.
This essential neurotransmitter is associated with the reward or pleasure system in the brain, which also connects with your experience of urges and desires. It plays a major part in the brain’s executive functions, or higher order thinking; like decision-making; good or bad. This is why if you are addicted to something (or someone), it can feel especially difficult to get the object of your addiction out of your mind or restrain from using it. But dopamine is by no means “bad,” the addiction example is just an illustration of how powerful these chemical responses can be!
To get a little boost in dopamine or to feel a bit more “rewarded,” consider the following:
- Eat a snack or a small amount of a treat that you enjoy, mindfully (not scarfing it down or consuming it in an addictive way)
- Break tasks down into smaller ones throughout your day so that you’ll get to cross off more things from your to-do list. Each one of those check marks can give you a mini dopamine boost. Not to mention motivation to keep going!
- Allow yourself to enjoy even the smallest of successes
- Allot time throughout your day to just yourself. This is a part of self-care related to not over-committing and not burning through your dopamine supply
A lot of different psychological and other bodily functions are affected by serotonin levels, but for our purposes, we will focus on how it relates to mood regulation. Serotonin affects the reward system as well as physiological responses, and low levels of it have been shown to be related to depression as well as anxiety. It is actually also responsible for how your “gut” is functioning, meaning that your diet directly affects how you feel! Essentially, how mentally stable you are feeling is likely at least partially related to your serotonin levels.
Here are some tips for boosting seratonin levels:
- Body movement (swimming, running, dancing, etc)
- Spending time in nature
- Eating carbs…but not overdoing it
- Feeling the sun on your skin
This is the “love” hormone and is involved in the sexual response cycle (for males and females), phases of childbirth, and social bonding. Humans have a need for connection and physical touch with other humans and there is nothing wrong with that. Oxytocin is at least partly responsible for how when you engage with someone sexually (consensually), your bond with them in strengthened! Oxytocin is also able to be stimulated by feelings of connection and bonding that don’t involve touch too! Talking to someone who you feel is genuinely listening and connected to you can start this natural release in your system. Spoiler Alert: Talking with a therapist you can connect with counts here!
Here are some easy ways to boost your “love hormone”:
- Giving/receiving a massage
- Hugging a friend or a person you love (30 sec min squeeze for best results!)
- Scheduling a “sex date” with your partner
- Playing with a dog
- Holding a baby
- Giving someone a compliment/receiving reassurance
These are powerful little guys that can stop the communication of pain in the brain and even produce a sense of euphoria! There is something to the experience of a “runner’s high.” After running for a while, a person may actually feel less pain despite pushing themselves farther physically and experience feelings of wellbeing, joy, and exhilaration. Your brain is a very powerful thing.
To get a boost in endorphins, consider the following:
- Rigorous exercise as your body allows
- Watching a comedy with a friend
- Checking out “fail” compilations online
- Eating dark chocolate
- Using some essential oils such as jasmine
Extra Support beyond using natural brain chemicals
If you find yourself feeling especially low, you are not alone. If and when your daily functioning becomes impaired, it is definitely time to start reaching out for help. Consider talking to your family doctor, a psychiatrist or counselor to explore if you may have a chemical imbalance that needs external intervention or if some practicing techniques and if self triggering these top for neurotransmitters in healthy ways can make an impact on your mood, relationships, and life! Make an appointment with an Angelus therapist today for some support on your journey to feeling better in a more sustainable way. While this will take effort on your part, it is often helpful to have someone there as a guide and we would be happy to navigate that process with you.