The January blues are elevated this year as the UK is put into the third national lockdown. 2020 highlighted the importance of not only looking after our physical health but also our mental wellbeing. As we enter 2021, we must remain resilient and positive through the winter as the pandemic continues. We cannot predict the future, but we can help ourselves cope with a few simple body and mind hacks to increase the release of certain hormones or neurotransmitters; the chemicals messengers produced in the brain that are responsible for making people bond, feel joy, pleasure and even love.
The four main hormones responsible for our happiness are:
Each one plays a different role and there are simple things that you can do to trigger their release.
Dopamine is a reward-based hormone that controls many functions like behaviour and emotions. It communicates with the front part or our brain and can motivate us to work towards achieving a reward. It is the hormone that made our caveman ancestors continue to hunt difficult prey because when they succeeded the intense rush of dopamine made them feel fantastic. Think back to a time when you scored a goal, achieved an award, or aced an exam, take a moment to remember how great that felt; that feeling was your brain releasing dopamine.
Dopamine doesn’t just make us feel happy, there are other advantages to having high levels in our system; it improves memory function, aids weight loss, improves resistance to destructive or addictive behaviour, combats depression and can even help prevent some illnesses like Parkinson’s disease.
Oxytocin is also known as “the love hormone”, it is the chemical that makes us want to win for the coach and not for the club. We release larger amounts of oxytocin at the beginning of a new relationship as it is responsible for feelings of attraction, bonding, empathy and trust.
Although social distancing and isolation has created less opportunities for us to naturally release oxytocin, there are many ways that we can encourage our brains to release it with minimal physical contact.
Serotonin plays a huge roll in our body’s essential functions like mood, appetite and digestion. Our mood fluctuates depending on our serotonin levels; high levels lead to greater feelings of happiness and low levels can lead to feelings of disappear and depression.
Endorphins are the body's natural pain killers and help us to survive a situation if we are injured. Many professional sports people have continued to compete with broken bones, deep cuts and soft tissue injuries because they have such high levels of endorphins in their system that they are able to continue functioning where many of us mere mortals would tap out. Endorphins not only reduce pain but also boost pleasure, which is why some people feel euphoric after a tough workout.
From here I will refer to these feel-good hormones collectively as DOSE because there is a lot of cross over when it comes to behaviours that naturally trigger your brain to release them into your system and making you feel amazing!
1. Eat a healthy and varied diet
Protean in food is broken down into many different amino acids and some of these are the building blocks of DOSE. Eating more foods high in these amino acids such as nuts, avocado, meat, fish, soy, coffee, eggs, green tea and dairy can naturally lift your mood. That is why it is vital to maintain a healthy and varied diet to support positive mental health; your body cannot release DOSE without the resources to build them so make sure you have a good and plentiful supply.
2. Take advantage of the sunshine
Vitamin D increases the number of DOSE receptors and we produce most of our vitamin D by exposing our skin to sunlight. So, take advantage of the sunshine, even in the winter months and look for dairy products fortified with vitamin D as an extra helping hand.
3. Contact with others
That might sound like a dangerous statement when we have all been told to keep our distance! However, if you do have people in your household and it is safe to do so, hug them often, hold hands or give them a stress-relieving shoulder massage. However, it is not just human contact that triggers a release of DOSE, so does contact with animals. Therapy dogs, cats and other pets have been used for years to help relieve stress in the sick and valuable for the very reason that they trigger DOSE responses. So, if you are feeling a little stressed, cuddle your furry friends and you will start to feel better.
4. Get enough good-quality sleep
Have you ever woken up on “the wrong side of the bed” or barked at people until you’ve had your first cup of coffee because you are “not a morning person”? That is likely because you did not get a good night sleep or you woke up in the wrong part of your sleep cycle, this often happens if you use an alarm clock. Lack of good quality sleep reduces the number of DOSE receptors in the brain and this will reduce your mood dramatically. Try using a sleep app instead of an alarm clock as you can set a window of time to wake up and it will determine the correct part of your sleep cycle to slowly bring you round, instead of the short, sharp and stressful sound of an alarm, which will release stress hormones and make you cranky.
5. Discover new things
DOSE is released when we discover something new or exciting and while we are on lockdown it is a good time to discover something different. Try cooking different cuisines, building a model, painting a picture, completing a challenging puzzle, listening to music, watching a film or serise or reading a book. These are all stimulating and DOSE boosting activities to keep you entertained while you pass the time.
6. Tick off items on your to do list
Every time you complete an item and tick it off your brain will reward you with a hit of DOSE, so make a list and tick them off as you go along, it is surprisingly satisfying and will boost your mood. This is also a great way to stay motivated, focused and productive while working from home.
7. Yoga, mindfulness and meditation
Taking time out of a busy day to breath, relax and stretch will help to decrease stress and anxiety levels, which helps to create better pathways for our feel-good hormones. Also, if you are relaxed, you are not releasing stress hormones, which happen to use similar amino acids as building blocks; don’t waste those precious resources by producing chemicals that will make you feel worse.
8. Compliment others
Giving others unexpected compliments will not only trigger a DOSE release in their brain but also in yours. Compliments are an important part of human bonding, trust and relationship building. In a time where we all feel isolated and in need a big DOSE of happiness, be free and generous with your compliments as it is a win win and can be just what someone else needs to feel better in a time of need!
9. Get active
Physical exercise is extremely effective at triggering huge DOSE responses and you don’t need to run a marathon or train like an athlete to experience the benefit. A brisk 30 min walk can do wonders in combatting stress and lifting the mood. Gradually increasing duration and intensity of physical activity over time will help prevent injury and maintain a sustained DOSE release.
Take some time over the coming weeks to try some of these activities out and see if it is the DOSE of medicine you need to feel happier, more productive and positive in your outlook.