Feeling sad or low lately? It could be a chemical imbalance in your brain. Here are the major chemicals and how you can get your daily dose. It's more fun than you think
We spend most of our day caught up in our head, lost in thought. We barely realize our brain, with all its fascinating visions, images, memories, ideas, and beliefs, is a physical organ. And just as much as the body needs vitamins and proteins to remain stable and function well, the brain needs a certain set of chemicals to function optimally.
However, since we are dealing with the organ that links the physical world with the unseen world of thoughts, imagination, and feelings, the source of these chemicals isn't always in what we eat. It's in what we think, feel, believe, and do. Food does play a role, but what's really needed is self-care at a deeper level.
The most important neurotransmitters are serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, endorphin, norepinephrine, and glutamate. A deficiency in these chemicals creates an imbalance in your entire system because your brain is the control center.
To be more specific, low serotonin and dopamine causes clinical depression and can trigger anxiety as well. Low glutamate can impair cognition, learning, and memory. When the brain runs of chemical imbalance, you don't just feel lousy, your memories get messed up, you can't think straight or make the right decisions, you cannot eat or sleep well, nor can you take care of your physical needs and relationships.
If this isn't enough drama inside and out, there is the baddie chemical--cortisol--which is produced in times of stress. An increase in cortisol level or constant exposure to cortisol can do so much damage to the point that your brain undergoes physical changes.
Parts of your brain responsible for memory (hippocampus) and decision making (prefrontal cortex) shrinks in size, and the emotional center (amygdala) becomes enlarged and more sensitive (explains the tears and angry reactions that came out of nowhere).
In order to stay sane, mentally healthy, and emotionally grounded, you need to ensure your body gets enough of these chemicals. Here are surprising ways to amp up your feel-good chemicals.
Your brain produces feel-good chemicals whenever you do something for yourself that ensures your survival and wellbeing. It's that simple. Considering the staggering number of people battling depression and other mental ailments, we sure haven't figured out a way to get these simple needs met. Here's what you can do:
Oxytocin, the love or bonding chemical, is released whenever you feel warm and close to another being. It doesn't matter if it is your friend, partner, parent, pet, or kid. Physical closeness such as a warm hug, cuddling together, or having a soulful conversation produces this magical chemical that is so required to sustain a sense of wellbeing. This is why we say humans are social beings. They need healthy doses of connection with others to survive, literally.
Often, a child or young person who loses trust in others and in life have their brain wired in a way that is constantly on the lookout for possible attacks. Whether it is their partner or someone pulling over next to their vehicle to ask for directions. When you consciously decide to build trust and start feeling like you belong rather than feeling alienated, your brain is given a chance to release oxytocin and also go easy on cortisol, which is produced whenever you perceive a threat (from partner, stranger, an email, or the news).
You can learn to build trust by:
Becoming trustworthy yourself; being there for others so that they will feel close and allow you to trust them; start with a wiser lot: a pet or a support group that is likely to accept you without judgment; spend time with yourself so that you build self-trust.
While this might seem like a misleading heading, the intention was to get you aware of your immediate response to anything physical. We live so much in our head and barely enter our body. Gift yourself regular massages if you can.
Indulge in self-care rituals like a relaxing bubble bath, using a calming body scrub, applying moisturizer etc. Give and receive hugs with an aim to promote trust and belonging. And stay in the hugs for a few seconds longer, especially when you feel like you need it. Physical touch is an important and almost immediate source of oxytocin.
Endorphin is the body's in-house pain reliever. It makes us immune to pain when it gets too much. Your prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision making, forming new memories, and learning, needs doses of pleasure and rewards to function well. The prescription for this much more fun and easy than you would assume:
Move: Not to tinker yourself into the "perfect" shape, but because moving in your body and moving your body feels good. Put on some music and dance. Think you just can't be coordinated enough? That's perfect. Because making new and unplanned movement triggers your body to produce endorphins.
Laugh: A hearty laugh is a miracle drug that triggers so many good chemicals that those who don't laugh are more likely to show more symptoms of physical and mental ailments. Research shows that it lowers blood pressure, stabilizes blood sugar, makes you immune to pain (physical and emotional), and creates happy chemicals that keep all mental ailments at bay.
Cry: Yup. Remember the scene in the French Kiss when Meg Ryan explains: happy smile; sad cry. Life is as simple as that. When you numb down your sadness or hold back tears, it creates tension and invites cortisol to act up and hold the fort. Crying doesn't just help you feel emotionally lighter, it releases physical tension, especially in your diaphragm.
5. Do something fun/silly purely for the joy of it: all happy chemicals
When was the last time you did something that wasn't on your planner or regular routine? When you engage in any activity purely for the joy of it--doodling, baking fresh cookies, writing, humming along a song, playing with your pet or a kid, watching a funny video, watching two kids have a conversation, having your favorite food--when you do it because you "feel" like it, your brain gets the signal that all is well and there is absolutely no threat for survival. As opposed to all the things you "have to do." This is related to a sense of urgency or survival.
When you set a goal and achieve it, your brain produces dopamine. It's the kick that you get from accomplishing what you set out to do. When you set a goal or feel motivated, dopamine helps your body release the physical energy needed to reach the goal and get the rewards we want. This is why those with depression often feel fatigue, lack of energy, and physical aches. To give yourself healthy doses of dopamine:
Set small tasks: It could be as simple as go for a walk after lunch at work. Or, write a few lines in my journal every day. This little dose of victory, on a regular basis, builds your brain to go for bigger goals.
Celebrate: For every little victory, pause and do a little wiggle or happy dance. Every time you acknowledge a new effort or completing a task, your brain strengthens the goal-reward cycle and makes it more pleasurable to live with purpose.
It can be a physical space like a reading nook, a cushiony corner by the window or just your bed. Get yourself a cozy comforter in your favorite color. The more physical safety you create, your body feels more at ease and relaxed. Create emotional safety zones by having one thing you can go back to feeling good. It could a book by a favorite poet, a feel-good song, or a relaxing routine like coloring a book or journaling. Or it could be your circle of close friends who instantly give you a sense of belonging and safety.
Other things that keep your brain chemicals in balance:
- Try meditation. It is powerful enough to change a traumatized brain to physically get back to normal.
- Eat brain foods like walnut, flax seeds, fresh, dark greens, berries, avocado, etc.
- Get to know yourself better: The topics you are touchy about, things that get you overly defensive, things that are a definite NO in friendships, relationships etc.
- Practice setting healthy boundaries.
- Find like-minded and kindred souls with whom you can share your fears and desires without any shame.