Today’s topic: EMOTIONS, and how to “hack” your own – so you can consistently feel really good.
*Disclaimer before we continue – I’m not a doctor or psychiatrist. Consult a therapist, psychiatrist, or other medical doctor if you suspect you even might have clinical depression, anxiety, or any other psychiatric issues. Consider this article informational in nature and do anything mentioned here at your own risk.*
HEADS UP: This post will NOT cover cognitive techniques such as CBT, DBT, focusing on gratitude, thinking positively, etc.
Instead, this post will focus on the chemicals that create your mood, and physiological interventions that will immediately and significantly adjust those chemicals with minimal effort. In other words, this post will cover anything that acts on your body like a drug to make you feel better, without the need to alter your thinking.
(As a rule of thumb, I figure that about 80% of my mood comes from the physiological factors that follow, and I always start with these when trying to feel better.)
Every one of your emotions is correlated to specific hormones and neurotransmitters in your brain. Specific interventions can cause your brain to produce more of these “good” hormones and neurotransmitters and make you feel significantly better.
Instead of viewing the world through the lens of “thoughts and feelings,” consider viewing the world through the lens of “hormones and neurotransmitters.” Use relevant interventions.
All of your good emotions basically come down to a few key hormones/neurotransmitters. They are as follows:
SEROTONIN: The overall good-mood neurotransmitter.
Serotonin feels like: a pleasant, relaxed, happy, easy-going, sunny day.
Lack of serotonin feels like: a tense, irritable, depressed, anxious, stressed, grey, overcast day. Not so much “tears” – more “tense, agitated, bleak.”
ENDORPHINS: The natural painkilling “exercise-high” neurotransmitter.
Endorphins feel like: euphoria, a “runner’s high,” a massage, sex, chocolate, a nice buffer against sadness or tears.
Lack of endorphins feels like: Tears, sadness, easily emotional.
CATECHOLAMINES: Including Dopamine, Nor-epinephrine, and Epinephrine – the pure pleasure/motivation neurotransmitters.
Catecholimes feel like: “WIN,” “YES,” “JACKPOT!!!”
Lack of catecholimines feels like: Boredom, lack of drive, lack of sparkle or motivation.
GABA: “Gamma aminobutyric acid” – the calm neurotransmitter.
GABA feels like: absolute, deep, peaceful, relaxed, fearless, utter calm.
Lack of GABA feels like: anxiety, fear, extremely tense, fight-or-flight, terror.
OXYTOCIN: the “love”/ “bonding” hormone.
Oxytocin feels like: Warm, meaningful connection, peaceful, calm, loving, cuddling a kitten.
Lack of oxytocin feels like: empty, lonely, meaningless, unsafe.
Keep in mind, there’s a lot of overlap here, since certain activities usually trigger multiple chemicals. For example, sex and chocolate raise your endorphins, but they also trigger dopamine as well. With this in mind, doing something to trigger even one of the above “happy chemicals” will usually end up triggering some of the others.
Using the list above, identifying whatever you are most lacking – and then getting more of that – will help you the most. There are certain things you can do to specifically elevate certain chemicals.
Serotonin is excellent because it helps, to at least a degree, with just about any bad mood. (For example, raising serotonin is clinically helpful for anxiety, but also depression.) Serotonin is triggered by SUNSHINE and EXERCISE. Getting outside in the morning sun and getting some sort of exercise as frequently as possible – even if the exercise is not that intense – will trigger serotonin.
In addition to exercise and sunshine, one of the most powerful ways to raise serotonin (if you are clinically short in it) is through an SSRI – Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor. SSRIs are antidepressant medications that require a prescription. If you suspect you may benefit from an SSRI, please see a doctor or psychiatrist.
If you don’t have clinically low serotonin, or still want other interventions, try this:
A SEROTONIN LAMP. I use this one. Weirdly enough…they actually do help. I didn’t expect it to work, but I tested it anyway. Sure enough, it does improve my mood. I also have a sunny, beautiful picture as my desktop background – so even if it’s all grey out, and I’m not getting serotonin-triggering sunlight, my mac shows me a retina display of a golden-hour sunset and my serotonin lamp illuminates my room.
I hear that St. John’s Wort can also help boost serotonin levels, and can be easily bought without a prescription, though I haven’t successfully tested it. (Note that St. John’s Wort should not be combined with any prescription SSRI medications.)
Endorphins are triggered by lots of things, but primarily EXERCISE, TEMPERATURE, and PHYSICAL CONTACT.
While easy or moderate exercise can trigger serotonin, it’s the more intense exercise that’s really good at triggering Endorphins. HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) – e.g., short bursts of sprints – and resistance training are excellent for this. Play around with finding the “minimum effective dose” – you may realize even a very short, fast sprint will give you a huge dose of endorphins. Or just a tiny bit of heavy weight-training work in the gym might do the trick. When you start exercising purely for the emotional benefit, you’ll quickly get addicted.
One of the coolest emotion-hacking tips (no pun-intended) is that temperature can dramatically boost your endorphins. While cold (such as cold water exposure) can certainly do the trick, I personally enjoy brief heat exposure. A hot shower, bath, hot tub, hot spring, or sauna can actually mimic exercise and work wonders for boosting endorphins (it’ll also release serotonin). This is another go-to method I use regularly.
Any type of massage can also help boost endorphins. Getting a loved one to massage you, getting a professional massage, or just using a massage gun on yourself can all work.
Finally, though it won’t do as much as the above interventions, taking a few deep breaths will raise your endorphin levels. While it may not be the most powerful method, it can be done at any time, which makes it pretty useful.
This category of neurotransmitters, which lumps together dopamine, epinephrine, and nor-epinephrine, has to do with excitement, intense pleasure, drive, and winning.
Whereas a sauna might leave your feeling boosted on endorphins and serotonin for hours afterward – maybe even the rest of the day– dopamine spikes tend to be short-lived. Therefore it can be useful to start by focusing on the other neurotransmitters when trying to achieve overall well-being.
That being said, some of the best ways to trigger catecholamines are PLAYING COMPETITIVE GAMES and SOLVING INTERESTING PROBLEMS. These are excellent methods fo boosting dopamine, epinephrine, and nor-epinephrine.
For example, can you remember the last time you were totally immersed in a game of pickup basketball, or your personal favorite video game? (Or iphone app game?) Or perhaps the last time you were achieving some exciting goal? Even just getting immersed in an old-school game or Pictionary, Charades, or Taboo can spike your catecholamines, but so can things like extreme sports, skydiving, doing an escape room, or fighting for your life in virtual reality. Music can also do the trick.
Even sipping my daily cup of black coffee tends to significantly boost my catecholamines, by boosting epinephrine and norepinephrine.
Medically, if necessary, catecholamines can be boosted by certain drugs such as Wellbutrin.
Gamma aminobutyric acid is extremely calming. The most direct way to raise GABA that I know of is through prescription medications such as benzodiazapenes.
However, you can significantly raise your GABA through intense exercise, which releases GABA, and helps you experience calm after the exercise is completed.
Try using intense exercise such as sprinting or boxing to release any pent-up fight-or-flight chemicals, and like with endorphins, see if you can find a minimum amount of time that gives you a maximum feeling of calm afterward. Jumping up and down, clenching your muscles, and shaking can all release that “fight-or-flight” energy and trigger GABA. So can laughing.
But one of the other best ways to boost GABA is indirectly, by focusing on oxytocin:
Like serotonin, oxytocin is one of those chemicals that seems to help with everything. (Though I suspect oxytocin may have an even stronger effect.)
The best way to raise oxytocin is by cuddling a loved one, or cuddling a pet – especially if you’re thinking of how much you love the person (or kitten!) when you do it.
However, you don’t need to have either of those handy to trigger this hormone. You can also boost your oxytocin through any type of close friendship or sense of community.
Spending time with people you really enjoy really does act like a drug, significantly improving your health and mood. Even having a positive, friendly interaction with a stranger – or just wishing someone well – can boost oxytocin, to a degree. If you really want to maximize your oxytocin when interacting with others, try bringing a sense of giving into the interaction – of actively giving love, of helping another, of reassuring your loved one (or pet that) that they’re loved, of caring for the other person.
From an evolutionary standpoint, humans are tribal creatures. Any sense of “tribe,” “companionship,” or “connection,” in virtually any form (as long as it’s with people you enjoy) will significantly elevate your mood. And like I mentioned, it’ll trigger GABA as well.
That’s a lot of different chemicals and interventions to think about. Whenever I get a lot of information like that, I always ask: What’s most important? If I had to forget about everything except for one or two concepts, what would I remember? If you find yourself feeling bad, what do you focus on first?
EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians) go through a specific assessment flow when working with new patients – they always check for critical life-threats first. Pilots go through a pre-flight check, following a specific series of steps before they take off.
With this in mind, I propose a basic Emotion-Hacking Priorities Checklist.
Before I lay it out, I want to remind readers that your body naturally produces ALL of the above chemicals on its own – so long as you give it the basic building blocks it needs: food, water, and sleep. The importance of those three basic ingredients cannot be overstated; these three core factors are directly involved with the production of all of the feel-good chemicals.
I also want to re-emphasize that out of all the interventions we’ve gone over, some are going to have a bigger impact than others.
With that in mind, here’s a “pre-flight,” “critical-threats” Emotion Hacking checklist, in order of importance. (It starts with a 3-way tie for first place.)
#2 RX MEDICATIONS (if applicable)*
#4 EXERCISE (for Endorphins and Serotonin)
#5 Natural Sunlight (for Serotonin)
#6 Heat (for Endorphins and Serotonin)
#7 Massage (Endorphins)
#8 Serotonin Lamp Light
#9 Game, challenge, something to “win” (Dopamine)
#10 Deep breathing (Endorphins)
*If you’re addicted to coffee like I am, this goes here :’D
So if you want to feel better, try going through the “Emotion Hacking Checklist” and see if you can improve one of the factors higher up on the list. Then make your way down. Almost invariably, you can significantly improve your mood with just the right nutrition, water, and sleep (or perhaps just a couple other interventions near the top, such as exercise and sunlight).*
*If you really are nailing EVERYTHING on this list and still feel bad, it’s time to move on to cognitive techniques (which is a whole other post).
To regularly feel really good, design a daily routine that triggers these feel good chemicals consistently (for example, exercising in the morning, getting great nutrition and lots of water throughout the day, and seeing people you care about in the evening.) You really can use things like exercise, sunlight, and cuddling, to drug yourself with serotonin, endorphins, GABA, catecholamines, and oxytocin.
It really is possible to hack your emotions and feel good more consistently than you might imagine.
Good luck, and happy Emotion-Hacking. =)