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, and before doing anything mentioned below. Consider this article informational in nature and do anything mentioned here at your own risk. None of this is medical advice*
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 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. It feels like “enough,” “plenty.”
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, Norepinephrine, and Epinephrine – the pleasure/ motivation neurotransmitters.
Catecholimes feel like: “WIN,” “YES,” “JACKPOT!!!”, drive, motivation, seeking more.
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. While good nutrition, hydration, and sleep will help with ALL of the following, there are certain things you can do to specifically elevate certain chemicals.
Serotonin is excellent because – to my knowledge – 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.) Because of this, we’ll take a little extra time to focus on it.
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. Ideally, you want to get some amount of daylight – NOT filtered through ANY glass but through being outside – during early morning and around sunset, because it’s not only good for your mood but is excellent for your circadian rhythm.
(*Tip – if it’s overcast outside, it becomes even more critical to get daylight. Instead of, say, 3-5 minutes of outdoor light, aim for 10-20*)
Serotonin is ultimately derived from the amino acid tryptophan, so eating HIGH-PROTEIN, TRYPTOPHAN RICH FOODS – like turkey, chicken, and tuna – can be very helpful in raising tryptophan levels. If you’re ever feeling bad and you’re not sure why, consider eating some protein – it may help significantly.
Another intervention that boosts serotonin, which we will mention again in connection with other neurotransmitters, is PHYSICAL TOUCH. Getting a hug from someone you care about – or cuddling your pet – are, in fact, serotonergic (they release serotonin).
In addition to DAYLIGHT, EXERCISE, PROTEIN, and PHYSICAL TOUCH, 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.
These are the most powerful serotonin boosting methods I know. If you still want other interventions, try this:
A SEROTONIN LAMP. I use this one. Weirdly enough…it actually does help. A bit. I didn’t expect it to work, but I tested it anyway. Sure enough, it does improve my mood, somewhat, but noticeably. 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 5-HTP, TRYPTOPHAN, ST. JOHN’S WORT and CISSUS QUADRANGULARIS are all different supplements that can also help boost serotonin levels — and can be easily bought without a prescription — though I either haven’t tested or successfully tested them myself. The mechanisms involved here are that tryptophan is an amino acid that converts to 5-HTP, which then converts to serotonin (so tryptophan supplementation would be less direct than 5-HTP supplementation, since 5-HTP is an immediate precursor to the neurotransmitter). I’m currently unsure of the mechanisms behind St. John’s Wort and Cissus Quadrangularis, but I do believe there are articles in quality journals showing they have significant, robust effects on serotonin levels. I’m not making any recommendations to try any of these, but if someone were to look into and try these, you’d want to to try one of the above at a time, and not combine it with an SSRI.
Okay that was a lot on serotonin, moving on –
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” of exercise “pain” to trigger your body to release these natural “painkiller” hormones.*
In fact 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. (Side note – 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 release endorphins. So can sex.
Finally, though I suspect it won’t do as much as the above interventions, taking a few deep breaths (rhythmically and slowly) will raise your endorphin levels. While I suspect 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 norepinephrine, has to do with drive, excitement, anticipated intense pleasure, and seeking more.
These neurotransmitters are fascinating because they are associated with getting things done, accomplishment, and success – being “on it” – but also with addiction; with continually wanting more of something (like TikTok) that triggers dopamine release.
After a very long time, I’ve finally found one supplement that is extraordinarily helpful with naturally boosting catecholamines in a healthy way:
Tyrosine, or L-Tyrosine, is an amino acid that is an essential component in the production of dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. I had very low expectations when experimenting with this supplement – but, to my surprise, tyrosine actually made quite a noticeable difference in my mood. (And seemed to reduce my need for coffee as well.)
To use tyrosine: Try ONE to THREE 500-mg capsules, ONCE to TWICE daily, morning and midday, so as not to interfere with sleep. Start with one capsule and add more as needed if you don’t notice anything after 10-30 minutes. Take before coffee, because you may not need much caffeine after.
Also, BLACK COFFEE and tea can help trigger catecholamine release as well. Interestingly, regular ingestion of caffeine increases upregulation of certain dopamine receptors, making you more sensitive to anything with a dopaminergic effect.
Another one of the other best ways to trigger catecholamines are COLD SHOWERS – which continue to steadily increase dopamine for hours after the initial exposure.
PLAYING COMPETITIVE GAMES, solving interesting problems, and SETTING OR ACHIEVING ANY TYPE OF (EVEN SMALL) GOAL are all dopaminergic.
So is MUSIC. And EXERCISE – but only if you like it.
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, or just a little bit of good-form heavy lifting, to release any pent-up fight-or-flight chemicals, and just 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 VIGOROUSLY for 20 second intervals – and then relaxing — can all release that pent up stressful energy, and trigger GABA. So can LAUGHING.
I would be remiss to touch on calming GABA without briefly mentioning what I would consider to be the more or less “opposite” hormone – cortisol. Cortisol is widely known as the evil “stress” hormone. In fact, the true story behind cortisol is much more complex than that, since cortisol has many absolutely critical functions. However, chronically elevated cortisol can have detrimental effects, including elevated stress levels. Reducing cortisol and increasing GABA both have similar, calming effects. One supplement shown in experiments to reduce cortisol is ASHWAGANDHA. I have not experimented with ashwagandha yet myself, but I intend to.
Alternatively, one of the other best ways to boost your feelings of calm is indirectly, by focusing on oxytocin:
Like serotonin, oxytocin is one of those chemicals that seems to help with everything.
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. Keep in mind, all of the above recommendations will also trigger serotonin as well.
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. In fact, studies show that having a strong social support network is one of – if not the – most powerful way to reduce overall stress levels.
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, generally speaking, 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 factors cannot be overstated; these three core factors are critically 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 (Endorphins/Serotonin/GABA)
#5 NATURAL SUNLIGHT (for Serotonin)
#6 Tyrosine (for Catecholomines)
#7 Heat (for Endorphins & Serotonin)
#8 Massage (for Endorphins)
#9 Serotonin lamp light
#10 Deep breathing (Endorphins)
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, getting outside for some daylight in the morning and during sunset, exercising in a way you really enjoy, getting great nutrition and lots of water throughout the day, and spending the vast majority of your time surrounded by people you care about.) You really can use things like exercise, sunlight, and cuddling, to effectively 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. 🙂