When last did you hug someone?
Although I am all for understanding our challenging emotions and growing through them, we need some happiness to keep us creative in the way we address our challenges. Happiness is associated with some of the experiences we cannot currently enjoy given current restrictions, like going to a party, a night out with friends or a long awaited holiday. If we break it down to brain chemistry, this is when neurotransmitters like oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine and endorphins are released. It may feel reductionistic, but maybe there is something useful to learn here. I have been reading about these neurotransmitters and practical ways (not medical) that stimulate our “happy chemicals”. It is a vast and complicated subject, and in writing briefly about it, I will no-doubt oversimplify. Perhaps it encourages you to find out more detail…
When we are isolated, our oxytocin levels fall. It is related to our sense of belonging. How can we increase our connection with others while keeping our spatial distance in one-to-one conversations? We have grown so accustomed to interacting with whatsapp messages and they definitely have their value, but hearing a human voice in a phone conversation connects us more. A video call where we can see a face without a mask has an even more positive effect. Could we aIso create more group experiences? Our extended family regularly meets up in group video calls, but there are many other options. Uniting towards a common goal is part of belonging. One of the classic ways we usually do this is in supporting a sports team, or belonging to a club with a common interest, or joining a support group around a common challenge. Many of these are now happening online or – in the case of sports – before cameras without live audiences.
When someone receives a gift, their oxytocin levels can rise. With so many people celebrating birthdays under pandemic circumstances, we need to use our imaginations here. My daughter was sent a personalised video put together by a group of friends. We can order presents on-line and have them delivered. Even if it is not someone’s birthday, what specific need of another person could we address with a surprise gift?
Oxytocin is often referred to as the cuddle hormone. Hugging as a method of stimulating this neurotransmitter is of course greatly challenged by spatial distancing with people we do not live with. Cuddling with a pet is not quite the same, but it helps. In many countries pensioners have adopted animals from shelters in a move that has been helpful to both animal and person. Another way of activating this neurotransmitter is to “give yourself a hug” by wrapping your arms around yourself or rubbing your own upper arms using slow movements. I made myself a weighted blanket a few years ago to improve my sleep. Amongst its many advantages, the weight simulates a whole body hug and increases levels of oxytocin.
Serotonin is probably most known for its links to exercise and what is often called “the runner’s high”. It is linked to our feelings of significance and value. Remembering past achievements and reliving the event can stimulate our brains to produce serotonin, so looking through a photo album of past accomplishments, or reminiscing about success experiences can give us a boost. Often, practicing gratitude reminds us that we are valued, as well as reminding us of what we value. Serotonin (along with vitamin D) is produced when we expose ourselves to sunlight, so 20 minutes of sun a day can boost our immune system as well as our mood. Apparently most of the body’s serotonin is found in our digestive system, where it plays a role in bowel regulation, and is linked to the presence of friendly bacteria and probiotics. This introduces the possibility that ensuring we have adequate levels of probiotics can influence how we feel.
Next time, more about dopamine and endorphins…
For now, here is a link to an interesting article with more detail about weighted blankets. You are welcome to contact me if you would like to know how I made my own.