#1 The Science Behind Improving Your Emotional and Psychological Wellbeing
24th April 2019
We run hundreds of training programs within organisations every year, looking to improve people’s wellbeing through positive behaviour changes. The thing is, most of us already know we could be doing things to improve our wellbeing yet we can’t seem to bridge the gap between knowing it is good for us and actually doing it. With emotional and psychological wellbeing in particular, it can be difficult to pin point exactly what you need to do to shift your mood and patterns of behaviour in a more positive direction. Thanks to neuroscience we don’t just have to take a stab in the dark, we can actually pinpoint which neuro transmitters make us feel a certain way and in turn shift our behaviours to top up those ones that are depleted. In this blog series we take a look at each neurotransmitter system, which behaviours and moods it is responsible for and what you can do to optimise this neurotransmitter system to improve your wellbeing.
Serotonin – Will I or Won’t I?
Known as the willpower chemical in our brain, Serotonin is one of the inhibitory neurotransmitters responsible for delaying gratification and balancing out any excessive excitatory (stimulating) neurotransmitters like dopamine that are firing in the brain. In our daily lives we rely on our serotonin neurotransmitters to be firing to ensure we persevere with challenges to reach long term goals instead of giving into something that would provide more instant gratification.
Low levels of serotonin can contribute to us struggling to commit or follow through on commitments, feeling a little down, being annoyed easily, or struggling to control our impulses. The cause of low serotonin levels can be due to many things; it could be that your brain has fewer receptors or they aren’t grabbing onto the serotonin very well, or maybe your brain is making less serotonin to begin with, or maybe the serotonin being released is being sucked back into the neuron too quickly for it to have an effect. This is where antidepressants can have a positive impact as many of them block serotonin sucking proteins, allowing more serotonin to be active in the brain for longer. While antidepressants are effective and best-practice for treating low levels of serotonin activity, so too are developing specific positive behaviours that directly improve our serotonin activity.
So what can we do to boost our serotonin activity?
Neuroscientist, Dr Alex Korb, identifies four ways you can enhance your serotonin activity and improve your ability to create positive habits to improve your wellbeing. These include:
Sunlight: Vitamin D, among its many important functions in our bodies, promotes serotonin production and as most of us know vitamin D is produced when the UV rays in sunlight are absorbed through our skin. Bright sunlight also helps prevent the serotonin transporter from sucking it away so it remains active in the brain for longer, which is something that antidepressants also do.
Massage: We know a massage makes us feel good but knowing why might encourage you to book in for one on a regular basis or at least prioritise it in times of increased pressure, stress, or when experiencing symptoms of depression. A study published in the international Journal of Neuroscience showed a 31% decrease in cortisol levels, an average increase of 28% was noted for serotonin and an average increase of 31% was noted for dopamine, following massage therapy.
Aerobic Exercise: You may have heard that exercise is the body’s natural anti-depressant, but aerobic exercise is particularly important for boosting serotonin. Running, biking, aerobics class, are all good options. Feeling forced to exercise doesn’t work though, it changes the neurochemical effect, so it is important that you recognise that you are choosing to exercise to have the desired boost to your serotonin.
Remembering Happy Memories: It’s simple yet tremendously effective. All you have to do is remember a positive event in your life. Remember it in detail with your senses sights, smells, feelings. You may find it helpful to write it down, or look at photo’s. The effect is two-fold, as studies show that remembering sad events decreases serotonin production, so when you remember positive events it not only increases your serotonin production, but it also stops you thinking of sad events.
So there you have it, serotonin; work at increasing it’s production in your brain for the next week and see if you notice an improvement in your mood and motivation to follow through and complete something you have been working on for a while. Next up; norepinephrine, responsible for enhancing thinking, focus and handling stress.