Everything changes our brain chemistry: a kiss, a harsh word, a delicious meal, a good night’s sleep. At times, certain changes may boost us, but at other times we may find ourselves dragged down or focusing too much on the past and look for ways to ground ourselves, lighten our mood, or return to the present.
How can this be done individually? Is it possible to consistently amp up the chemicals in the brain without drugs?
There are, in fact, several ways of doing so.
Increase Mindful Awareness
Using all five senses to actively stay in touch with whatever is currently happening increases mindful awareness and anchors us in the present. By being here now, we can lessen the effects of focusing on the past with its regrets or the future with its anxieties.
Basic grounding techniques can help focus energy away from our internal dialogue. To shift the mind-body state, try any of the following:
- Name every color you can see right now. Alternatively, notice your surroundings—subtle color differences in the sky, cloud configurations, trees and branches, or the various shapes and sizes of leaves.
- Think of vocabulary words from another language you’ve studied or recite a poem or song you know by heart.
- Imagine a time when you felt very safe and describe it in great detail, using all five senses.
- Build a sanctuary in your head, using as much detail as possible.
- Focus on where your body is contacting the floor—a chair or bed, perhaps—and breathe into that place.
- Play old car games in your head, like Geography (where you say the name of a place and use the last letter of that place as the first letter of your next one) or I Packed My Trunk and In It I Put an A (apple), a B (beta endorphin), a C (color wheel), going through the whole alphabet, starting from A each time you add another letter.
Restore Through Sleep
Sleep is recognized as the one surefire elixir for the body-mind. It allows both to fully relax and self-cleanse and also rejuvenates us for the day ahead. People who get enough sleep may feel healthier both physically and mentally.
If falling asleep is difficult, try Yoga nidra. Yoga nidra, or yogic sleep, is an amazing practice that only requires you to lie down and listen to a guided program of relaxation. Unlike other guided relaxation options, yoga nidra is an ancient practice that activates theta brain waves, putting you into a relaxed place between waking and sleep.
Yoga in general can have great benefit. Gentle yoga releases a chemical called GABA—an effect some obtain through benzodiazepines or alcohol— in the thalamus. GABA is associated with lowering neural activity in the brain. As a chief inhibitory neurotransmitter, it plays a critical role in reducing neuronal excitability throughout the nervous system. In humans, GABA is also directly responsible for the regulation of muscle tone. Yoga practitioners had consistently higher levels of GABA compared to those who did not practice yoga.
Yogic breath work also helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, calming any fight-flight-freeze feelings that occur when the sympathetic nervous system is activated. What this means is that if your system was amped up with adrenaline, it can self-soothe simply through your changing your breathing pattern. Just five minutes can make a radical difference. Try equalizing the length of your inhales and exhales, then lengthen your exhalations until they are twice as long as your inhalations.
Meditation and Music
Watching thoughts come and go during meditation increases our tolerance for discomfort while allowing us to return to focusing on our breath. In addition, just sitting quietly gives the body-mind a chance to calm down and take a break from whatever feels stressful in life. If meditation seems daunting to you, consider trying it first with an experienced practitioner. You might also look into the many different meditation apps and podcasts, such as Meditation Oasis, that offer guidance.
Music can also change your brain chemistry in seconds. Just hearing the first few notes of an upbeat song, or one you associate with positive feelings, can reset your attitude. Of course, if you’re feeling down it can be hard to make the effort to turn on some cheerful tunes. If this is the case, you might try the opposite approach. Listening to something that expresses or leads to feelings of sadness or grief can help us process these feelings and generate a sense of release. Remember that you are alive, that the feelings of the moment are part of life. We are here to feel it all.
Eat for Wellness
Eating foods that keep the blood sugar level from either lowering precipitously or rising too quickly—protein, whole grains, beans, and vegetables—is also a good way to maintain a stable mood. In addition, eating at regular intervals and not skipping meals can help keep blood sugar from plummeting and leading to irritability, crankiness, or general impatience.
Dark chocolate (the darker the better) contains anandamide and phenylethylamine. Anandamide, an endocannabinoid like THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) is renowned for its ability to lift a person’s mood, amd phenylethylamine is what makes us feel the way we do when we’re in love. Cocoa solids that are 70% cacao or higher work best.
Intimate relationships and strong bonds with friends, family, and coworkers can all help increase levels of oxytocin, otherwise known as the bonding hormone. Women may tend to have more of this in their systems, but it increases in people of all genders when we hug, are physically close, or feel especially connected to another person.
Finally, feel your breath. Remember that you are alive, that the feelings of the moment are part of life. We are here to feel it all. Some times will be easy; others will be more challenging. But that is simply the nature of existence: we need contrast to find life perennially interesting. Experiencing the things we do not want from life can help us become able to more easily craft what we desire.
Allow yourself the full human experience by practicing radical acceptance.
- Greenough, W. T., & Chang, F. F. (1989). Plasticity of synapse structure and pattern in the cerebral cortex. In A. Peters & E.G. Jones (Eds.), Cerebral cortex: Vol. 7 (pp. 391-440). New York: Plenum Press.
- Kolb, B. (1995). Brain plasticity and behavior. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Kolb, B., Forgie, M., Gibb, R., Gorny, G., & Rowntree, S. (1998). Age, experience, and the changing brain. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 22, 143-159.
- Kolb, B., Gibb, R., & Gorny, G. (2000). Cortical plasticity and the development of behavior after early frontal cortical injury. Developmental Neuropsychology, 18, 423-444.
- Pert, C. (1999). Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
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