This article series is posted on the www.brandedyyc.com website. Continue following for the remainder of the year as I lay out the 12 Steps to a Whole New Mind ;)
STEP FOUR OF 12 STEPS TO A WHOLE NEW MIND
Welcome back growth-minded seekers. Last month I introduced you to the third step of this 12 step series, which highlighted how to change your relationship with fear. If you haven’t had a chance to read the previous articles yet, make a mental note to circle back later. You can enjoy and appreciate each article on its own, but you will get more from each by laying the foundation of these concepts and allowing them to build sequentially in your mind.
This month’s focus is all about shining your light to build resilience, motivation, and gratitude by understanding and instigating the creation of Mother Nature’s natural anti-depressants and mood balancers – your happy chemicals.
My discovery and love affair with happy chemicals started five years ago. I was in Vancouver and I tried MDMA for the first time. It was summertime, I was on vacation, and I was in the mood for a new experience and adventure. For those of you who do not know, MDMA acts as a serotonin-norepinephrine-dopamine releasing agent and reuptake inhibitor. This means that not only does it release these happy chemicals that produce a feeling of euphoria and extreme empathy, connection, and motivation, but it also blocks the reuptake so your system is swimming in these high-vibes. This drug is not for everyone, and my intention here is to not glamorize or encourage experimentation, as my anecdotal experience does not ensure yours would be the same.
An hour after I ingested the magic pill, I found myself walking through downtown Vancouver on my own, smiling at everyone I passed by and dialling up one friend after another to tell them how much I loved them. I felt superb, elated, free, detached from stress or worry, excited about whatever my future held, and so in tune with the present moment. This realization compounded into a revelation – I have felt like this before. When I eat a mindful, balanced, and nourishing diet, get the sleep that I need, practice exercising daily, push outside my comfort zone, engage with inspiring and empowering people, create art and projects and actively support people around me…I feel oh-so-high on life.
That was the pivotal moment that sparked a curiosity to understand these happy chemicals and what it takes to create that natural high on a daily basis in a real, healthy, and sustainable way. I explored, researched, conversed with experts, and practiced with tools and ideas that I found or that came to my mind. I realized that knowing about this mind-body connection would open my mind to a new way of thinking. I began to see my emotions as by-products of my actions, rather than being attached or held-hostage by the stories and emotional pendulum swings. I began to lean into my fears and struggles as opportunities to grow and understand myself even more. I created a system that supported me in retraining my brain into healthier and more fun habits of thought and action, which consequentially, increased my overall happiness.
Knowing about these happy chemicals, how to create them, how to keep them in balance, and how to recognize when time and attention needs to be spent to elevate them, has been life changing for me and my clients. When we actively and mindfully engage in activities that boost our happy chemicals on a daily basis, consciously let go of habits, thoughts and actions that are deflating, and create a mindset that focuses on growth and progress versus perfection and comparisons, we can increase our happiness baseline.
Jonathan Haidt, in The Happiness Hypothesis, speaks of the happiness baseline as your happiness set-point, based on your experience, your biology, and your mindset. When something amazing happens, i.e. winning the lottery, meeting the man/woman of your dreams, getting that promotion you’ve been working your ass off for, etc. we have a few days, weeks, or months of increased happiness, but eventually, you dip back down to your happiness baseline. And conversely, if the worst happens, i.e. you lose a loved one, you lose a limb, your marriage falls apart, etc., you dive down into the depths of despair, but again, given some time, you find your way back to that happiness baseline.
When I learned about the happiness baseline, I realized I was not happy with where my baseline sat. I wanted more from my life. I knew the words I used when I talked to myself, the things I focused on, and the habits I had were not conducive to raising my baseline. So I needed to shift a lot in order to increase my overall happiness.
Enter happy chemicals.
To be the change you want to see in yourself and in the world, you need the motivation, the tools, the path and the support. Once you are clear on your core values, your goals, and the daily and incremental steps to align yourself with who you truly want to be, getting those happy chemicals pumping daily will make the journey so much smoother and a lot more fun.
Loretta G. Breuning, PhD, in her book Meet Your Happy Chemicals says:
“The feeling we call ‘happiness’ comes from four special brain chemicals: dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin, and serotonin. These ‘happy chemicals’ spurt when your brain sees something good for your survival. Then they turn off, so they’re ready to spurt again when something good crosses your path.”
Here are the basics you need to know about your happy chemicals:
From an evolutionary perspective, as hunter and gatherers, life was strenuous and required exerting a lot of energy to find the basics for living. Dopamine is the happy chemical that spurts when you are seeking or working towards something that will improve your quality of life, or when you find something that is good for your survival.
John Ratey tells us in his brilliant book SPARK,
“It works like transmission fluid: if there’s not enough…attention can’t easily be shifted or can only be shifted all the way into high gear.”
This makes it extremely important to find ways to elevate your dopamine levels daily and fuel the reserve tank that allows for balanced action, versus extreme swings from total exertion to complete lack of motivation.
Dopamine feels like motivation, energy, and pleasure. It aids in sleep, memory, action, mood, and overall cognitive ability; like learning, attention, and building new habits by forming new neural connections.
You can produce this naturally by getting your daily sweat on , setting goals and taking incremental steps to get there, creating a to-do list and checking things off as you go (I love the feeling of checking things off my to-do list!), building mindful movement with intentional and focused breath, and creating a constant reason to seek as you collect experiences, resources, or knowledge.
This chemical doesn’t play as big of a role in happiness, but rather supports survival by spurting when we step outside our comfort zone, calming our brain and relieving muscle pain during strenuous exercise.
This chemical spurts when we need a boost of energy to save ourselves from lurking danger or get back to the safety of known territory. It releases a euphoric and blissful feeling, giving you energy to push to a new level of physical exertion.
Evolutionarily speaking, this was what helped our ancestors escape from predators when injured or in need of a burst of energy to move or think quickly. We get spurts of this chemical when we push through the “wall” in physical exercise and has been equated to the “runner’s high”, or the ability to move large and heavy items in the face of extreme danger that we would normally not be able to budge.
Our ancestors learned quickly that we are stronger and capable of much more when we work together as a unit or tribe. Serotonin is the happy chemical that would spurt when you did something that furthered your integral role within your group. It is the desire for social dominance, respect, and status.
It feels like safety, balance, and confidence. It aids in mood balancing, bowel regulation, and cognitive flexibility. John Ratey refers to serotonin as “the policeman of the brain because it helps keep brain activity under control. It influences mood, impulsivity, anger, and aggressiveness.” Serotonin is a powerful antidote to fear and anxiety, as it targets the brain stem and amygdala directly, where our programmed and habitual reactions come from.
You can produce this yummy chemical naturally by acknowledging what you are proud of on a daily basis, focusing on the advantages of wherever you are now, making a gratitude journal that you fill in daily, and noting that your status will continually go up and down – so not getting attached to always needing to be the best or be the hero. You also get some of this happy chemical by engaging in mindful movement and aerobic exercise, getting sunshine and fresh air, working on a hobby, letting go of comparisons, trying something new, and opening yourself to new opportunities.
This is the love chemical. We have survived because we have reproduced. This chemical promotes survival with the desire for heart-felt social bonds, loving relationships, and positive interactions.
It feels like safety, trust, love, and connection. It is an amnestic hormone, which means it has the ability to wipe out previous neural pathways that lead to past lovers, as well as to forget the pain of child birth.
Oxytocin is released when you receive tender love and care from others, but also when you give and care for others. Reaching out to receive and give support actually protects your cardiovascular system from the harmful effects of stress, anxiety, and fear. It works as a natural anti-inflammatory, and helps signal a state of relaxation and calm, even during stressful life events.
Lissa Rankin, in her mind-blowing book, The Fear Cure, says:
”because your heart has oxytocin receptors, the hormone helps heart cells regenerate and heal from the damage of chronic stress responses. Oxytocin strengthens the heart, even in the face of fear, and you recover from scary emotions and stressful life events more quickly not just on an emotional level, but physically.”
So it is true what they say, love is the answer.
You can create oxytocin naturally by listening to soothing music, engaging in meditative breath, laughing, having sex, getting a 20 second hug, connecting with friends and family, or working up a sweat while laughing and connecting with those around you.
These chemicals are all complicated and inter-connected. It is important to note that you need to have your basic building blocks of a healthy and balanced life in place in order to get the full range of benefits from these chemicals. Eat healthy and whole foods, get the sleep that you need, engage in self-care practices, seek support, speak up and don’t allow others to be the lead driver in your life. Know that everyone is different. What works for me is not what will necessarily work for you. And, as you get used to an activity that once produced a huge spurt of juicy happy chemicals, the effects begin to diminish as your mind and body craves novelty to keep these chemicals flowing. So stay open and curious to what you are feeling and allow each day to be an adventure.
As you develop a new routine of actively engaging in activities that produce happy chemicals, remember that creating new habits takes time and patience. As Loretta G. Breuning, PhD, explains,
“Building new circuits in adulthood is like trying to slash a new trail through dense rainforest. Every step takes huge effort, and the new trail disappears into the undergrowth if you don’t use it again soon. Such trail-blazing feels inefficient and downright unsafe when a nice superhighway is nearby. That’s why people tend to stick with the pathways they have.”
This is where support, mindfulness, and clear direction and goals help you stay focused on why you are willing to struggle and persist in your journey. Set yourself up for success by engaging with someone who will support and cheer you on. Whether you reach out to me to learn more and set up a support system, or enroll people in your life already, this is a journey you will be thankful for embarking on. Happy Trail Blazing!
The Fear Cure by Lissa Rankin
Meet Your Happy Chemicals by Loretta Breuning
SPARK by John Ratey