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If you struggle with depression, or if you’re just feeling down lately, it’s helpful to get familiar with what the “happy brain chemicals” are and how you can “hack” them (encourage them) to improve your mood.
To be perfectly clear, depression will not be “cured” with any quick fix. These are simply steps you can take to lessen the impact of depressive symptoms. Please understand that that is the extent of the advice I am offering here, as I am not a licensed therapist.
This post is all about the happy brain chemicals
What are happy brain chemicals?
Happy brain chemicals are hormones that act as neurotransmitters, sending signals throughout the brain to perform different functions.
In the case of “happy” brain chemicals, I am referring to the hormones responsible for regulating your mood.
- Dopamine – the “reward” chemical, associated with pleasurable activities like completing a task or eating food
- Serotonin – the “mood stabilizer,” responsible for our feelings of wellbeing
- Oxytocin – the “love hormone,” promoting trust, empathy, and bonding in relationships
- Endorphins – the “pain reliever,” produced in response to stress or discomfort, or as a result of activities that produce reward
We can take a closer look at each of these happy brain chemicals and discuss how to hack them.
Dopamine: The Reward Chemical
Dopamine plays a role in our pleasure. In turn, this plays a role in our ability to think and plan in a way that strives for reward. It is involved in our learning, motivation, sleep, mood, attention, and more.
What can happen with a dopamine imbalance?
Too much dopamine: may be responsible for schizophrenia. Having too much dopamine in different areas of the brain causes hallucinations and delusions seen in schizophrenic patients.
Too little dopamine: may be responsible for ADHD, according to some research. This lack of enough dopamine can make for a lack of focus, which is why ADHD causes attention difficulties.
Additionally, a lack of enough dopamine can cause depressive symptoms. This made so much sense for me personally, as psychiatrists tend to prescribe medications that target serotonin first, and not dopamine.
It wasn’t until I got prescribed a medication that targeted dopamine that my depressive symptoms finally improved! Sometimes, your serotonin levels may be just fine, but another chemical like dopamine may be out of balance and causing depressive symptoms.
This is especially true if you find yourself experiencing the more motivation-related symptoms, like feeling hopeless, loss of interest, and difficulty concentrating. These were exactly how my depression affected me.
How to “Hack” Dopamine
- Try something new: Switching up your daily routine or taking on a new hobby can help create a “new” reward motivation for yourself. This will help to get you out of monotony.
- Listen to enjoyable music
- Make a small (manageable) list of tasks and complete them: each completed task will register as a “reward”
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Serotonin: The Mood Stabilizer
Serotonin is one chemical that is related to positive mood. It impacts many things, from your emotions to your motor skills.
What can happen with a serotonin imbalance?
Too much serotonin: This can cause “serotonin syndrome.” This is uncommon and usually only caused by the use of too much medication or the addition of a new medication that increases serotonin. Serotonin syndrome causes confusion, rapid heart rate, and agitation.
Too little serotonin: Much more common–resulting in anxiety and depression. You may feel down, more anxious, less calm, less focused, and less emotionally stable. Serotonin is what psychiatrists attempt to address first when treating anxiety and depression.
How to “Hack” Serotonin
- Exposure to bright light: can explain why seasonal depression typically clears up in the summer months
- Exercise: has been known to boost mood where serotonin is concerned
- Meditation: helps relieve stress and improve your outlook on life
- A healthy diet: foods like eggs, cheese, and nuts.
On that note, I want to take a moment to dive into the mental health benefits of meditation.
As serotonin deficiency is a very common cause of depression and anxiety, and knowing that meditation can help alleviate these symptoms, it’s important to talk about.
Why is Meditation Important for Anxiety and Depression?
Well, in addition to boosting serotonin levels, those who meditate show a quicker recovery in their emotional response after being exposed to negative events.
This means that meditation will help you manage your negative emotions. Regular meditation promotes resilience to negative events in your life.
But if you don’t regularly practice meditation, or if you don’t know how to meditate, you might not know where to start.
That’s where Muse Meditation Headbands come in.
Muse headbands are a multi-sensor meditation device, providing feedback in real-time on your brain activity, heart rate, and breathing. This builds a consistent meditation practice that’s tailored just for you!
Muse completely guides you through your meditation with points, goals, challenges, and bonuses along the way. With each new session, it learns more about you via your mind and body to adjust your goals in a way that fits your needs. How cool is that?!
You’ll definitely want to check these out if you’re looking to include meditation into your routine. Go take a deeper look at Muse Meditation Headbands here!
Onto the last two happy brain chemicals!
Oxytocin: The Love Hormone
Oxytocin is involved in empathy, trust, and relationship-building. It’s called the “love hormone” because oxytocin is released during activities like hugging, breastfeeding, and orgasm.
What can happen with an oxytocin imbalance?
Too much oxytocin: I know you might be thinking “what bad can come from too much love?” but, actually, too much oxytocin can result in oversensitivity to the emotions of others.
For example, when given measured doses of oxytocin, participants in a study reported greater emotional intensity when looking at a series of facial expressions.
How to “Hack” Oxytocin
- Get or give a massage: this physical contact will boost oxytocin
- Tell someone that you love and care about them
- Spend time with friends: helps build up your emotional well-being and increase bonding
- Show affection: both romantic and platonic affection can trigger oxytocin production
- Do something nice for someone: seeing your efforts to make someone else happy can make you feel happy too!
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Endorphins: The Pain Reliever
Endorphins are responsible for reducing pain and boosting pleasure. They are released in response to pain and stress, but also during pleasurable activities like eating, sex, or exercise.
What can happen with an endorphin imbalance?
Too many endorphins: I’m not finding any studies done on this, so “too many” (natural) endorphins might not be a problem!
Too little endorphins: contributes to depression. Endorphins, like dopamine, play a role in our reward system, so depression can certainly result from an unstimulated reward system.
How to “Hack” Endorphins
- Regular exercise (think “runner’s high”!) although, this doesn’t have to be running. Read my article on The Ultimate Exercise Routine for Boosting Mental Health for exercise ideas that can boost your endorphins
- Yoga and, again, meditation!
- Create music or art
I hope this makes the science behind these “happy brain chemicals” a little clearer!
Knowing what each of these happy brain chemicals are and how to hack them will help you identify what you can do to boost your mood and improve your overall mental well-being.
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