Different Moods, Different Neurotransmitters, Different Tools

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Fun and the Art of Enjoying Life When Things Are Tough
Episode 36

Podcast Opening over Theme Music:
Hello and welcome. This is Kate's Nuggets, the podcast where I share bite-size nuggets of wisdom about self-leadership. I am your host, Kate Arms. I invite you to listen lightly, let these ideas wash over you. Take what you take and let the rest go. You can always come back and listen again.

Kate Arms:
Today I want to do something a little bit different.

I want to talk about neurobiology with a little more depth than most coaches do these days. Most coaches these days have a pretty firm handle on the idea that we need to get our bodies out of the physiological fight, flight, freeze, fawn state in order to be our most calm, creative selves and loving the life that we are living.

That typically gets understood purely in relationship to norepinephrine and cortisol, which are the two major stress hormones. But actually, when we're looking at mood issues and procrastination and fear of starting something new and that wall of awful that happens when we're paralyzed and procrastinating and we're not doing the thing we know we want to do or when we're numbing ourselves out, we want to increase our sense of calm and our sense of connection with ourselves and with the parts of ourselves that feel alive.

And all of these things are mediated by neurotransmitters. If we want to be most effective in terms of the interventions that we use, in terms of the way we change our thoughts and our behaviors, understanding the neurotransmitters a little bit can give us a sense of what interventions might be useful. These neurotransmitters are each part of a system, and the systems are interconnected, but for simplicity right now, I'm going to assume that they're not to describe the system. Each has a system that functions as a feedback loop.

There are behaviors that you do that influence those neurons that are connected using that neurotransmitter. The behaviors that you do influence what the neurons do, how much neurotransmitter is released into the system. That has an impact in the way you think and the mood that you have, and that has an impact in your behavior. And then your behavior has an impact in the neurotransmitter.

What you want is either an upward spiral where that feedback quality is actually creating a increase in your mood and better behaviors and increase in your mood and better behaviors that just get better and better and better and better, or at least something that is neutral and good in that it's not spiraling up or down. Or if it's spiraling up a little down a little up a little down a little up a little down a little where your baseline is is somewhere that you're happy to be.

What you really want to avoid is a downward spiral where a bad mood triggers a bad behavior, triggers a problematic mood, triggers a problematic behavior. And in fact, quite often what happens when we're in a bad cycle is we have a mood or energy level challenge, and the behavior that we habitually use to escape from or cope with or deal with, that mood issue has a short-term positive effect, which is why we do it, and a long-term negative effect. The long-term negative effect gets the neurotransmitters out of balance, which creates the mood problem, so then the mood problem creates the habitual behavior that has the short-term positive effect and the long-term negative effect.

So this is a classic addictive cycle, but it doesn't have to be as serious as that. It could just be that you get a bad night's sleep and so you're kind of fuzzy and you're cranky, and then you make decisions about what to do with your day that end up having a negative impact on your sleep quality the next night. And so that becomes a downward spiral.

It may be that for you what you really have trouble keeping on an upward spiral is related to one neurotransmitter system. And if that's the case, you really just need to focus on the interventions that go directly at that system. If you struggle in all areas, then you're going to want to make sure that the interventions that you cultivate as habits in your life cover all the system.

There are dozens of different neurotransmitters, so there are lots and lots and lots of ways that you might want to help yourself. So what works for you is going to be very, very specific. I'm not going to talk about all of the neurotransmitters. I'm going to talk about the biggies. The first thing that I'm going to do is go through some of these neurotransmitters one at a time, and then I'm going to summarize the material in terms of if you capture all of the interventions that I talk about in that summary, you're going to capture all of the neurotransmitters that I will have discussed.

One of the neurotransmitters, serotonin, is involved in depression. One of the most common medications for depression are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which actually just allows serotonin to stay in your system more before it gets absorbed back in after it's been released. Serotonin is involved in willpower, controlling impulses, and regulating your mood. So, willpower and controlling impulses have a relationship to depression, not just the mood itself. The interventions that often go directly to the serotonin system include exercise, gratitude and compassion practices, and sunlight and sleep hygiene.

Dopamine is involved in habits, impulses, addiction, and enjoyment. Dopamine is the rush of anticipation. The interventions that go directly to the dopamine system are playfulness, enjoyable activities, exercise, gratitude and compassion practices, and social connection. These are pleasure centers. ADHD often has challenges with dopamine regulation because the compulsiveness of the impulse towards the thing that's enjoyable now rather than the thing that's going to be meaningful later is a struggle with ADHD.

Norepinephrine is one of the stress hormones, and it's involved in regulating your response to challenges in your environment. The interventions that impact your norepinephrine system include exercise, sleep hygiene and sunlight, and whether you feel like you are in control. So this piece of, are you feeling like you're in control of a situation, is what I mean by self-leadership. It's the command and control center. It enables you to decide who it is you want to be, how you want to be in the world, and what you want to do, and what habits you want to create.

All of the things where I talk about self-leadership are going towards this norepinephrine system, which allows you to have that executive control of the whole of your brain and neurotransmitter systems.

Oxytocin is another neurotransmitter there's been lots and lots and lots of press about. It's the one they call the love hormone. It's involved in love and trust and human connection. Oxytocin when it's out of balance makes you cling to people and become a real us versus them. If you've ever seen a couple that is really, really together and they are great together but they're jerks to everybody else, that's their oxytocin system has them highly connected to each other and everybody else is the enemy.

Oxytocin is why a group can feel so loving internally and so hateful externally.

Oxytocin interventions include gratitude practices and compassion practices, physical touch and deep pressure, social support and good relationships, and then things that involve the breathing and the breath, slow, steady breathing and moving in ways that rock the system and good posture to allow things to flow easily through your body.

There are endorphins. Endorphins are the natural painkillers and the natural high that are mimicked by drugs. Endorphins are the runners-high, and endorphins are balanced by appropriate exercise and stretching, by massage and physical touch and deep pressure, by social connections and good relationships. The other natural pain relievers are the endocannabinoids, and these are the pain relievers that also involve peacefulness and ease and a sense that everything's okay. The most direct intervention here is exercise.

Another really important neurotransmitter to have balanced is your melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone that's involved in quality sleep. All sorts of biochemical processes don't happen well when we're short of sleep. The interventions that go directly toward the melatonin system are exercise and sunlight and good sleep hygiene.

GABA is a neurotransmitter that is involved in reducing anxiety and can be heavily influenced with breathing and body work. Yoga and music can be very powerful interventions because they go straight to posture and breathing and energy levels.

One of the most important things in terms of trying to rewire our brain is a neurotransmitter called BDNF. This one doesn't get a lot of talk, but it's really, really important because this one is involved in the growth of neurons themselves. This is a neurotransmitter that is absolutely crucial to neuroplasticity, to the ability to rewire our brains at all, and this is most directly impacted by exercise.

Exercise most directly taps the neurotransmitter system that helps us rewire our brains. If that's not a reason to make sure that exercise is one of our fundamental habits, I don't know what is. It makes everything possible.

And cortisol, cortisol is the other big stress hormone.

In general, lowering stress reduces cortisol. Cortisol is the primary hormone that pushes us into fight, flight, freeze response. So, lowering cortisol is hugely important if we want to reduce any of our behavior patterns that come from fear or anxiety, and most of our unskillful problematic behaviors at some level come from fear. Part of how these are all interconnected is that a disruption in any of the other systems can increase our stress levels, and then that can increase our cortisol level.

One way to decrease our cortisol level is to get some of the other systems in better balance.

To go directly to cortisol, there are some mindset things that we can do. If we can look at our surroundings and look at things that we're noticing that we're afraid of and realize that often if we can look at what we're excited about, about the same thing, look for the opportunity and the thing that's scaring us, if we change our perspective so that we're looking for the opportunity, often the cortisol reduces just by changing our mind about that, because it's switching our perspective from fear to curiosity.

In addition, we can intervene with cortisol through exercise, deep, slow, steady breathing, relaxing music, quality sleep, so there's a connection with the melatonin system, see, all interconnected, and mindfulness. Mindfulness is about noticing what is and accepting what is even if part of what is a desire to change things. Accepting that this is what it is right now goes a huge way to reducing cortisol. There's an overlap in the interventions between these neurotransmitter systems, and this is very, very valuable for us because it means that although we have dozens of neurotransmitters, we don't need dozens of interventions, we need a few.

There are about seven categories of interventions. If you have one or two activities that you can do in each of these categories of intervention, you have a full toolkit that you can use. And then you need some way of making sure that you're using them on a regular basis. The seven categories.

Exercise. You need to pay attention to when exercise is a way of avoiding the rest of your life, because exercise is involved in euphoria and pain reduction and peacefulness, and it mimics the drugs that have you zone out and disconnect. And so too much exercise can be as bad as too little exercise.

The next intervention is involving your breathing and your body, particularly things that calm your body with slow and smooth breathing. So rather than just noticing your breathing, which you would do in a mindfulness approach to breathing, the breathing approach for this intervention is doing structured breathing exercises to make sure that your breathing is slow and smooth. Another element of this intervention is good posture and relaxed muscles, something that relaxes your body and involves good posture.

Music can be so powerful in here because music goes to our sense of rhythm and we breathe with the phrases of music, whether we're playing music or listening to music. Music is powerful because we can use music to regulate our energy up or down. So, you want to have music that slows your body down and music that gets you moving. Many of us do this instinctively.

What some of us do instinctively, however, is that rather than using music consciously to modulate our energy in the direction that we want it to go, we let the energy that we currently have pick our music for us, and then we reinforce where we already are. Which, if our energy is down and we pick depressing music and the music slows us down further, we can get into a negative cycle.

One of the reasons that music that's upbeat with sad lyrics can be really powerful, the lyrics can speak to our mood and the music itself can speak to our energy and can actually regulate our energy through the beat and the pulse of the music while our brain is feeling understood and connected to through the lyrics.

Next intervention is sunlight and sleep hygiene. Sunlight in the morning is really powerful for helping our melatonin systems get tuned into the cycle of the day. If we don't get outdoor morning sunlight, it can be really hard to actually stay on the 24-hour cycle.

Next intervention: gratitude and compassion practices. Notice the good stuff. If you have a look at the past episodes of Kate's Nuggets, you will see that there's a lot of stuff already out from me in the realm of gratitude.

Next intervention is social connection, good relationships, and physical touch.

For those of us who during a period of physical distancing are craving physical touch because we don't have people in our social circle to hug or to grab hands with and hold hands with, that physical touch, we can give a lot of it to ourselves through deep pressure on our bodies, actually physically giving ourselves hugs. Compression sheets and weighted blankets or weighted vests can give us some of that sense of being held. This is one of the reasons why massage is such a wonderful intervention for a lot of people, because it's got that physical touch.

Also, good relationships, not just seeing people but actually having healthy, positive, non-toxic relationships. Improving the quality of your relationships improves so many elements of your brain chemistry. Talked a little bit about mindfulness, the next category, that acceptance of what is without reactivity, that noticing that really being aware of what is, so not numbing out, not distracting yourself with overeating or alcohol or surfing the net or binge-watching TV or any of the other things that we can use to numb out and escape noticing what's really going on right now.

Now, some of the things that we can use for escaping our awareness of what's going on right now, we also can use in a way that is mindful. So, one of the things that we want to cultivate is an awareness of, whether I am using this to zone out or am I using this to be in my life, enjoying my life, living out who I want to be in service of the goals that really matter to me? The goals that really matter to me can be love and connection with my family, fun, and play. They don't all have to be productive.

And then finally, the intervention that goes to anxiety and stress reduction is increasing our sense of perceived control. In this time when we are facing a global pandemic, this is one of the most powerful practices we can take on, is focusing on, "what are the things that I can control?"

The whole purpose of Kate's Nuggets is to help you figure out how to be the executive director of your own life and how to use all of the kinds of possible interventions that there are to impact all of the systems of your internal being and your interpersonal relationships so that you feel like you are thriving even when life throws challenge after challenge after challenge at you. Because life is nothing if not a series of things we must deal with.

Life is always throwing stuff at us, and when we feel like we have control over how we respond to that stuff, that stuff becomes the ingredients that we use to make the best possible life for ourselves from those ingredients. The ingredients themselves stop being things that are getting in our way, they become the resources that we have to build our lives with.

So quick summary, to really thrive: exercise, breath and body connections, sunlight and sleep hygiene, gratitude and compassion, physical touch, social connection, good relationships, mindfulness, and your perception of control over your own life, that's going to get you on a path that is always moving upward.

Wishing you thriving and ease and upward spirals.

End Theme and Credits:
If you're enjoying Kate's Nuggets, please share it with your friends, and please write a review on iTunes so other people know what they would get if they listened too. Thank you.
To dig deeper into the topics I cover on the podcast, follow me at instagram.com/SignalFireKate or at facebook.com/katearmscoach.
To take this work deeper and learn how I can support you personally as your coach, email me at kate@signalfirecoaching.com to schedule a free consultation.
Here's to Thriving! Catch you next time.
Kate's Nuggets is a Signal Fire Coaching production. The music is adapted under license from Heroic Age by Kevin McLeod.

Different Moods, Different Neurotransmitters, Different Tools
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