As a human, you are essentially a chemically-driven meatbot: a puppet of evolution. Our true masters, in neuroscience geek-speak, are molecular-based electrical impulses and chemical substances transmitted from one brain cell to another.1
These chemicals and impulses have an agenda: They want to improve your chances for survival. When you do things that benefit your success, on cue your brain is flooded with chemicals to make you feel good. This surge – actually, hormones are what they are – is designed to make you want to feel that feeling again so that you will repeat the experience. In some cases, the feeling may even be addictive. For some people, certain feelings can be addictive and they may go to extremes to not only feel them again, but to feel them more powerfully. To do this they will engage in behaviors with dangerous consequences.
Getting Your DOSE
There are ways of hacking into the brain’s so-called happy chemicals. In fact, it’s possible to do it to an extreme, in ways nature never intended. (More on that below.)
By releasing pleasure hormones when you achieve a goal, earn respect from peers, make a friend, laugh, or practice yoga, nature intends to reinforce such behavior. These activities demand patience and work. These so-called pleasure chemicals are referred to as DOSE: Dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. Here’s how they work:
- Dopamine: This hormone is involved in reinforcing behavior. It often works not as something felt, like a swoon of pleasure, but more as a signal that influences behavior. Such as: If you liked meeting friends at a restaurant, or had a night when you met a beautiful someone there, you will be programmed to feel a small release of dopamine when you are near that place. The actual effect is nuanced and subtle. (It’s also a reason why addicts can get cravings when they’re near bars or see drug paraphernalia.)Consuming caffeine releases dopamine. For a larger surge, jacking up the risk factor you will also jack up your dopamine surge: Jumping out of airplanes, bungee jumping, clandestine sexual encounters, and even self-injury like cutting. Dopamine, and the dopaminergic system, is generally considered to be at the heart of many of our addictive behaviors.Addictive drugs like cocaine and heroin flood the brain with dopamine, bringing it up to as much as 5 or 10 times normal levels. When the levels are elevated like this, the brain of the user begins to associate the drug with an outsize chemical reward. Over time, a brain that has a super-elevated level of dopamine will think this is normal. Drugs then create a need that only they can meet. Drugs that increase dopamine condition the brain and memory, changing it physiologically and creating the compulsion to take more drugs. Such is how drug addictions are formed.
- Oxytocin: Eye contact and social attentiveness from another person, receiving a gift, cuddling, hugs, and playing with your dog all release oxytocin. It creates intimacy, trust, and strengthens relationships and relationship fidelity. Oxytocin in crucial to social bonding. Both men and women release oxytocin during orgasm as do mothers while breastfeeding.Interpersonal touch not only raises oxytocin, it also reduces cardiovascular stress and improves the immune system. Hugs will accomplish this far better than a handshake will.
- Serotonin: In addition to exercise and massages, sunlight, caffeine, sugar, nicotine, and other chemicals also cause increases in serotonin levels. When you feel significant or important, that is the flow of serotonin you feel. When you feel lonely and depressed, serotonin is absent. A feeling of community also helps with the release of serotonin. This is why gangs and criminal groups are often attractive to troubled souls, as are recovery groups like AA and NA – culture and community can be effective ways to facilitate serotonin release. Antidepressant medications often target on the production of serotonin release. Conversely, unhealthy acting out and attention-seeking behaviors are often attempts at gaining what serotonin provides.For a more healthy and natural way of releasing serotonin, gratitude practices can work well. Reminders and mental pictures of good things you’ve experienced can help release the hormone. For a stressful day, taking a few moments and reflecting on past achievements and victories can help boost serotonin and provide relief.
- Endorphins: Exercising, laughing, crying, and stretching can bring bursts of this hormone. Even the expectation of laughter, like waiting for a comedy show to begin, can raise your levels. So do aromas like vanilla and lavender and tastes like dark chocolate and spicy foods. It also can have a pain-numbing effect (which may explain why sometimes the pain of an injury, like a broken bone, can be delayed for a few hours). In their abilities to diminish pain, endorphins have analgesic and sedative effects similar to morphine. They can work to relieve anxiety and depression. The feeling of a “second wind” and the euphoric “runners high” that comes on during a strenuous run are also the result of endorphins.Want a quick endorphin boost during your work day? Keep some chocolate or scented oils in your desk drawer. Otherwise, exercise and spicy food are good ways to keep the flow going.
- And then there’s GABA: Called the anti-anxiety molecule, GABA acts as an inhibitory molecule that slows down the firing of neurons and creates a sense of calmness. The anti-anxiety medication benzodiazepines – Valium, Xanax – create a sedative effect by increasing GABA. Natural ways of increasing GABA include practicing yoga and meditation.
As with the Body, So Goes the Brain
With surges and decreases in the chemicals dopamine and serotonin, the body will respond by producing less afterwards. The result will be irritability, fatigue, and anxiety.
Being in a positive state can have a significant effect not only on your motivation, productivity, and wellbeing, but can also help keep your levels of brain dope higher. This is particularly true of serotonin. Each of these four hormones has a job to do, and once that job is done, they shut down. Such is how the brain works.
Through exercise endorphins are produced in anaerobic zones, serotonin results from aerobic exercise. Serotonin can also linger in your system after exercise. Foods that contain tryptophan, like corn and milk, and carbohydrates are all converted by our bodies into serotonin. (High protein foods don’t convert so well.)
Consider this: When the body is used well, it tends to be physically geared toward happiness. Happiness is not just in our minds, it is in our bodies too.
If you or a loved one feels a need to overcome an addiction, contact BLVD Treatment Centers. At BLVD Treatment Centers we custom tailor our recovery programs within the safe and nurturing confines of our rehab treatment centers. Located throughout Southern California, in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and in Portland, OR, our mission is to assess the severity of your addiction to help you achieve true recovery. Call us now at 1-866.582.9844.
- Coyne, Jerry A. “You Don’t Have Free Will.” The Chronicle Review. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 Mar. 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.