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Your brain needs a DOSE of happy chemicals (how you can do this)

Updated: Feb 2


One of the podcasts that I enjoy listening to is Kwik Brain. I like that the host Jim Kwik, teaches listeners about the brain in a practical and easily understandable way. When we know more about how our brains are designed to work and the flexibility we have to change some ineffective patterns, we can feel more hopeful and empowered to get unstuck. On the podcast, experts share strategies and information to help you increase your brain potential for better focus, mental health and overall wellness. Great stuff!


Kwik Brain podcast Episode #84 featured renowned speaker and writer Radha Agrawal. She shared a nice overview of some science-based strategies for shifting your emotional experience (read: increase your happiness and reduce your unwanted emotions!). We can shift our emotions by doing things that can trigger our brains to release certain chemicals: dopamine, oxytocin, seratonin and endorphins. You can remember these with the acronym DOSE.


The episode prompted me to do a little more investigating about these chemicals and how we can trigger them. And having knowledge about how these function in our body is really empowering! Let’s look at each of them:


DOPAMINE - this neurotransmitter is sometimes referred to the “reward chemical.” When you accomplish a task, win something, or hit a homerun, you receive a hit of dopamine that says “you have done a good job!” It’s like a little brain trophy and it can be addictive (it might be why we are so drawn to things like video games and gambling and social media “likes”). We also feel this when we do something kind for others or have a novel experience.


How you can get it: do things that give you a sense of accomplishment (I love crossing things off lists!), volunteer or help out others in a selfless way, or spend some intentional time thinking about others in a loving way or writing a sweet letter/text/email/post to them.


OXYTOCIN - this hormone is the “connection and touch” hormone. Oxytocin releases feelings of warmth, calm, and comfort in your body - sensations associated with loving touch and close relationships. You may have heard about mothers experiencing an abundance of oxytocin in their bodies during pregnancy and breastfeeding, which naturally helps the mother attach to and bond with the baby. It also describes the high behind MDMA (ecstasy/molly), a party drug that releases oxytocin in the brain by stimulating dopamine and serotonin.


How you can get it: hug someone, play with a pet, spend quality time with someone you feel very connected to, cuddle with a significant other.


SEROTONIN - you might have heard about this one in ads for antidepressant medications. It’s your body’s “feel good” chemical and it’s a neurotransmitter that you can trigger naturally without using medication. Serotonin carries (transmits) signals along and between nerve cells in your body (neurons). It’s found mainly in your brain, your intestines, and your blood platelets. It plays a role in some really crucial bodily functions: digestion, blood clotting, maintaining healthy bone density, sexual desire, and especially with managing mood. Serotonin’s main role is regulating your mood and fostering a sense of well-being...when its levels are in the normal range. Low levels can lead to depression.


How you can get it: get outside (exposure to sunshine or bright light increases your brain’s release of serotonin), laugh (watch funny videos, be with people who make you smile and laugh), focus intentionally on happy events and people (these thoughts trigger the feeling of happiness which trigger the chemical release), reflect on 3-5 things or people that you are grateful for (focus intentionally on what good you have in your life, even if it’s basic like a safe place to sleep at night), recall a positive memory or situation where you felt connected or appreciated or valued (this triggers the sense of belonging and safety).


ENDORPHINS - you might have heard of these in reference to the “runner’s high.” Endorphins are released by the central nervous system to help us deal with physical pain (which exercise causes in a slight way since we have to physically push our systems). Exercise is the most common and accessible way that we can trigger the release of endorphins. Even walking briskly can produce a significant shift.


How you can get it: find something physical to make yourself sweat or strain your body (dancing, biking, running, yoga, swimming, boxing, strength training, sex…). Any amount of time is positive; start wherever you can, and aim for 20-30 minutes a day to maximize the benefit. Find some type of movement that you actually enjoy so it's easier to be consistent with.


Many of the folks I work with have emotions that feel overwhelming and out of control. The hard truth is, we simply can’t make emotions go away entirely (and we actually don’t want them to...that would be a whole different kind of misery). But I hope that by learning about our DOSE chemicals, you are able to see some ways you do have some control over the intensity of emotions and have identified some ways you can personally increase your experience of positive emotions to offset the more challenging ones.


Let me know if I can help!


Photo credit: Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

© 2017 Heather M. McKenzie, Therapist LCMHC PLLC

(919) 744-8335

heather@mckenziecounseling.org

all areas of North Carolina, United States​