Better Brain Chemistry: Sleep, Move, and Breathe to Calm

Young adult holds mug of tea and reclines in armchair wearing headphonesEverything 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

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.

Embrace Connection

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.

References:

  1. 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.
  2. Kolb, B. (1995). Brain plasticity and behavior. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  3. Kolb, B., Forgie, M., Gibb, R., Gorny, G., & Rowntree, S. (1998). Age, experience, and the changing brain. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews22, 143-159.
  4. Kolb, B., Gibb, R., & Gorny, G. (2000). Cortical plasticity and the development of behavior after early frontal cortical injury. Developmental Neuropsychology18, 423-444.
  5. Pert, C. (1999). Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Nicole Urdang, MS, NCC, DHM, LMHC, therapist in Buffalo, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Royce

    Royce

    December 20th, 2016 at 8:22 AM

    I have been having a very hard time sleeping all night long- have any thoughts on how I could fix that? It is driving me pretty insane to be missing so much sleep. I don’t even feel like myself anymore

  • Nicole

    Nicole

    December 20th, 2016 at 9:15 AM

    Hi Royce,
    Thanks for taking the time to write.
    Check out the yoga nidra I mention in the article, just click on the link. It should help.
    Also, not eating right before you go to sleep is helpful, as is no screen time right before bed.

  • Royce

    Royce

    December 21st, 2016 at 10:00 AM

    Getting right with my eating habits is on the top of my list for new priorities for the new year. I know that I eat way too much junk and it is probably impacting me in ways that I don’t even realize. I eat for pleasure and not for wellness and once I saw this in black and white text well it kinda smacked me right in the face. But I do have to get through the holidays before I undertake what is going to be a huge obstacle for me!

  • Nicole

    Nicole

    December 22nd, 2016 at 3:18 AM

    Good luck with making those food changes. Once you do, I believe they will become second nature and you’ll feel better in many ways.
    I have two pieces on my personal website that could also help with these new ways of eating. One is called nutrition and the other food: cheap & healthy.

  • Royce

    Royce

    December 23rd, 2016 at 8:27 AM

    Thanks- I will definitely check those out

  • Tina

    Tina

    December 24th, 2016 at 6:19 AM

    I like the idea of trying to focus your thoughts away from the negative. I guess that could be the whole concept behind trying to count sheep to go back to sleep. Any thing that can take you away from the uncomfortable moment at hand can actually be good for you in that it allows your mind to go to another place, a place where you may not dwell quite so much on that which is bothering you at the moment. It can still be hard to get away from that moment but if you try it for long enough and with enough determination then in the end you can actually be pretty successful.

  • Estelle

    Estelle

    December 26th, 2016 at 10:48 AM

    I use my art to live out the sanctuary in my head, just another way to express what I believe to be the safeness in the calm that is within me, and I just express those feelings on canvas. That for me is my literal escape.

  • Toby J

    Toby J

    December 26th, 2016 at 5:31 PM

    Awareness, calm, relaxation to bring out the change we need in our lives. I wonder sometimes about how far our awareness can go. And we bring about change for the better in our lives when we do.

    We feel our feelings. Acknowledged what was happening. Then we can feel the emotion powering this limiting belief. If you want to change your feelings you have to feel your feelings.

    Here is a short process that took me forever to figure out that guarantees change of any limiting belief we had programmed in to us. Sometimes this next step can be very touchy to people. I only mention it because it works.

    The example I like to start with is that forgiveness cures anger. If someone is angry and they forgive them then their anger dissolves away. It is not repressed or denied. It is simply gone. It takes emotion to resolve emotion. This is the basis of gutap. And the best anger management there is around.

    And remember, forgiveness is not trust. Trust must be earned – forgiveness is only to free ourselves from being tied to them.

    False beliefs or negative programming simply has a couple of powerful negative emotions that keep the false concept controlling us. Dissolve them and the false belief is completely diminished.

    So how does it work?

    When someone is angry they naturally direct their feeling of forgiveness into their feeling of anger. The two emotions must connect to be resolved. False beliefs though often have a couple of emotions that have to work together. Complicated but not impossible.

    Gutap – The three steps described:
    1 – Feel the feeling of your limiting belief. If you want to change your feelings you have to feel them. (Everyone already knows this step.)
    2 – Insight: Find what the positive answer is that it actually wants you to know. What does your limited belief want you to know that is positive? What is the good thing it wants for you but trying in a negative way? (A slight shift on the insight people are seeking.)
    3 – Connect the feeling of what it wants you to know and let the feeling of that answer flow into the feeling of your limiting belief to change it. The positive feelings changes it – not you.

    That is as simply as I can put it.

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