Have you ever noticed that you can work yourself out of a bad mood just by doing something you enjoy? I know it works for me when I go dancing. It doesn’t matter what kind of stress I’ve faced that day, or what frame of mind I was in before dancing. Once I get to a class, or spend an hour or two social dancing, I find myself smiling and laughing, letting all those things that were worrying me fall away.
This is so great to notice, because it demonstrates just how much power you can have over the way you feel. You don’t have to let a bad mood ruin your day (or week) — you just have to take control.
How does doing something you love boost mood? It’s because mood is so connected to the hormones in your body, and these activities naturally prompt the release of the “feel good” hormones dopamine and serotonin.
That’s right, you can change your own internal chemical reactions just by changing how you react. You can’t always change a bad situation, but with a little practice you can control your reactions. In times of stress, instead of turning to bad habits like overeating, smoking, or drinking too much alcohol, you’ll be much better off if you head out to do an activity you adore! Let’s look at how the process works, and then I’ll give you a few tips on finding the natural path towards happiness.
What are Dopamine and Serotonin?
Dopamine and serotonin are powerful neurotransmitters, chemicals that carry messages between nerve cells and to organs and muscles. They’re important to sensory perception and movement and help calm and focus your brain. These two natural chemicals, along with oxytocin and endorphins, can help drive happiness by promoting feelings of connection, intimacy, and pleasure while fending off depression, loneliness, and mood disorders.
Dopamine is important in motor functioning, motivation, and emotional rewards. Dopamine typically increases with rewards, like accomplishing a goal, and the resulting rush of accomplishment can motivate you to repeat the behavior in the future. Low levels of dopamine can diminish motor functioning, leading to Parkinson’s disease, and are associated with low motivation and addiction as well.
Serotonin has a number of important functions, including regulation of cardiovascular and endocrine system functioning, regulating appetite, memory, body temperature, mood, and sleep. Most serotonin (about 90%) is found in your intestines. The rest is in your central nervous system. Low levels of serotonin are linked to anxiety disorders, memory impairment, mood changes, depression, and insomnia, among other things.
Both dopamine and serotonin can influence behavior and emotions, but their impact is not quite the same. These chemicals have their own unique mechanisms, and each can impact the other. That’s why it’s important to understand a few things about each of them, separately.
How Do Dopamine and Serotonin Impact Depression?
Since we’re talking about happiness here, let’s take a look at how dopamine and serotonin are connected to depression – and how imbalances in either might negatively impact your mood.
You know that feeling of satisfaction you get when you reach a goal after a lot of hard work? That comes, in part, from a rush in dopamine. Dopamine impacts feelings of motivation and reward, so it makes sense that if you are depressed, which often brings low motivation and declining interest in things you used to enjoy, you may be dealing with a dip in dopamine. Irregular function of the dopamine system may be linked to depression and schizophrenia, according to some experts.
A connection between serotonin and depression has been researched for decades. As the research progresses, what we know has shifted and changed. While there used to be a belief that low levels of serotonin has a causal relationship to depression, the research doesn’t prove that theory. But there’s still a lot of evidence that there is some kind of link – and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly used to treat depression. But this is no instant fix — often people with moderate to severe depression report improvement only after taking the SSRIs for six to eight weeks.
What that says to me is the solution isn’t as simple as a short term increase in serotonin. In fact, other research suggests that over time, SSRIs increase positive emotional processing. So serotonin, it seems, helps you process emotions differently.
What About Other Mental Health Conditions?
The psychological impact of these important neurotransmitters certainly isn’t limited to depression.
An increase in dopamine accompanies every pleasurable experience, big or small. And that’s what can make you crave something to the point of addiction. Your brain associates these activities or substances with the “rush” and continues to seek it out. But over time your dopamine system can need more of something to create the same response.
Serotonin has also been shown to play a role in other conditions, likely because of its impact on emotional processing. A 2014 review of research showed that serotonin was associated with several conditions, including anxiety disorders, autism, and ADHD. In people with obsessive-compulsive disorder and social anxiety disorder, researches found low serotonin binding, meaning less is available in the brain.
If dopamine and serotonin can have such an impact on your psychological health, doesn’t it make sense to try to keep these neurotransmitters functioning as they should? Trying to ignore difficult feelings often results in a blow up over something that might seem minor, and hiding away when you’re feeling down typically makes you feel more isolated, keeping you down much longer than you need to be.
While serious dysfunction of the systems that regulate dopamine and serotonin production may not have a simple solution, there are a few things you can do right away to boost the release of these neurotransmitters – and your mood! Let’s take a look at a few now.
Tips to Boost Dopamine and Serotonin Release and Start Feeling Better!
Sometimes, the path to happiness isn’t as long and winding as you might think. I have had great success myself – and so have many of my patients – with just a few small shifts in the way I respond and relate to events in my life. Here are a few tips to start you moving down that path!
Because dopamine is released with a sense of achievement, working towards goals on a regular basis can make a real difference. And they don’t have to be huge goals – break things down into smaller, more easily reachable steps (getting just one room in your house cleaned and organized, for instance) for more frequent hits of those satisfied feelings. Don’t forget to celebrate those small milestones, and when you’re nearing completion of the larger goal, set a new one to avoid a dopamine crash.
Because a sense of connection and achievement can prompt an increase in serotonin levels, which has a calming effect on your brain, regularly acknowledging your successes – past or present – is a great strategy for mood boosting. Your brain receives the same positive messages, and produces serotonin in response, whether something is happening in real time or was long ago. And it’s hard to dwell on negative thoughts when listing all the great things you’ve experienced. Keeping a “gratitude journal” is one way to be sure you’re taking time every day to remember all those positive experiences. Try writing a list of three to five things you are proud of or thankful for each day.
Reach Out and Connect
Touch is a great healer, and a cuddle or a hug can help turn your mood around quickly if you let it. That doesn’t mean you have to go crazy hugging strangers on the street – just make sure you find a few moments each day to connect, physically, with those closest to you.
Get Up and Move
Making sure that you are getting enough regular physical activity can also ensure that your level of serotonin is adequate. Research has suggested that regular exercise can increase the level of serotonin in your brain. And because serotonin decreases as you age, exercise can help keep these levels stable, acting as an anti-aging strategy as well. And if you use your exercise time to set some goals – running a mile each day, or perfecting a dance routine, for instance – you can boost your dopamine levels too!
Soak Up the Sun
These days, people are much more likely to spend hours and hours sitting at a desk, with little to no natural light. Research has found that just five minutes spent outside can increase motivation, improve mood and boost positive self-esteem. Getting twenty minutes of natural sunlight, without the sunscreen, allows your sun to absorb just enough of the UV rays to aid in production of vitamin D and serotonin.
Make Great Food Choices
What you eat can really change how you feel. If you’re relying on coffee or sugar to boost your mood, it may be working – temporarily. But you’ll need more and more to keep those feelings going. Making sure you’re getting enough Omega-3 fatty acids is a better option; these increase serotonin and don’t come with the same crash.
Try Something New
You know that feeling of excitement you get when you try something? That’s your brain reacting to these new experiences with a dopamine release. It doesn’t have to be a thrill-seeking activity – diving into a new hobby will work just as well as skydiving.
Seek Out Calming Scents
Essential oils are an all-natural option that are getting a lot of attention these days. These plant-based oils have long been used in medicinal ways. Research is supporting the idea that scents can make a difference in treatment of psychological disorders. Lemon, bergamot and lavender have been found to be particularly effective, signaling your brain to release dopamine and serotonin. Be sure to follow the directions on the oils carefully, and keep out of the reach of young children.
Don’t Ignore Serious Mental Health Concerns
All of the above tips can help get you out of a “funk” but they shouldn’t be used in place of medical treatment. If you have severe mood issues, or thoughts of harming yourself or others, it’s imperative that you seek out proper treatment. Working with a mental health professional can help you find the best options for your unique circumstances.
Medication is sometimes the best option for people with severe mood disorders. That said, I believe that far too often these are used as a first, not a last, option. And some serious side effects can result from prolonged exposure to any medication. While uncommon, there have been instances of abnormally high levels of serotonin in people treated with certain medications. Symptoms include rapid heartbeat, sweating, restlessness, hot and cold flashes, and weight gain.
The risk of side effects, combined with the idea that masking symptoms with drugs doesn’t help you learn what’s really going on in your body, is behind my belief that all the options should be considered before reaching for a prescription pad. In functional medicine, our goal is to look at the whole picture, not just one little piece.
Related Article: 5 Ways to Balance Hormones Naturally
You Have More Control Over Your Own Happiness Than You May Think!
While some chemical imbalances are severe and need more intense treatment, many of life’s challenges – and the negative feelings that accompany these – can be addressed naturally. There are so many things you can do to change the story you are telling yourself, and take control of your thoughts. You can choose how to react in any given situation – and with a little practice, you may find it easier and easier to keep that smile on your face no matter what life throws at you!