There are scientifically proven ways to make your brain boost your mood.
Feelings of wellbeing and happiness are largely driven by four brain chemicals - oxytocin, endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. These neurotransmitters and hormones have complex effects on our brain and body, and our lifestyles - what we eat, who we’re with, what we’re doing. In these difficult times, here's what the experts say to kickstart them.
Oxytocin: Principally known for its role in childbirth, it’s also involved in almost all forms of human bonding. It causes the warm fuzzy feeling after sex, the contentment of being with close friends and the joy of cuddling your pet.
Of course, the restrictions we are living under mean many are being denied the physical touch that humans naturally crave - hence the rise of “skin hunger” - but connecting with others outdoors is a possibility for almost all of us and, perhaps surprisingly, 'meeting up' online can still give an oxytocin hit. Research by Paul Zak at the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies in California has shown that while in-person interactions give a better oxytocin release than social media conversations, video conferencing can be 80 percent as effective.
Endorphins: They affect the same receptors in the brain as painkillers. They relieve pain but, just like morphine, create a feeling of bliss as a welcome side-effect. If you’ve ever experienced a runner’s high, you’ll know exactly how these chemicals work: after a gruelling session, any physical discomfort falls away and you’ll feel suddenly euphoric. So, the best-known way to release endorphins is through cardiovascular exercise. Up you get!
Dopamine: People commonly say that they get a “dopamine rush” when doing things that give them immediate pleasure, like getting social media updates or eating. In fact, the neurotransmitter dopamine is more closely linked to the anticipation of reward and driving you to seek out things you enjoy. Without it we would enjoy something once and never be motivated to do it again.
If you have found yourself lacking motivation in lockdown, it might be due to disruption in the dopamine pathways of your brain: we have lost routines like Friday night at the pub or a lunchtime gym class which were trusted to make us feel good.
To get some zeal back, you could try to rewire your reward circuits with a technique called behavioural activation, according to Dr Ciara McCabe, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Reading.
“It’s a part of cognitive behavioural therapy which increases enjoyment and pleasure by asking people to schedule rewarding activities,” she says. The technique helps you out of a period of low motivation by getting you to take on small, manageable tasks. As they are completed, you will feel satisfaction that will help you to gradually rebuild your drive.
She recommends thinking about practising a new or old hobby that you enjoy, like playing a musical instrument, painting or knitting. At first, practise just a little each day so the task doesn’t feel overwhelming and, over time, you will build motivation. “It’s about training yourself to seek out reward,” says McCabe.
Serotonin: This neurotransmitter can affect processes from digestion to your bone health and is important for sleep too. Its role in shaping mood isn’t entirely clear, but people with depression often have low levels of serotonin.
Serotonin is involved in your brain’s sleep-wake cycle, with levels naturally rising when you’re exposed to bright natural light. To give your brain a good shot at making enough serotonin, try to spend as long as you can outside every day to get maximum exposure to light.
Also, higher doses of the amino acid tryptophan, which is found in some high-protein foods like milk, tofu, oats and chicken boosts serotonin. As does consuming dark chocolate - which will come as no surprise to anyone who gets pleasure from eating it.