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Balancing Your Neurotransmitters – the Science of Mental Health

Is everything on fire for you right now? Have burnout or mental health issues been making it difficult for you to be your best at work, or work towards your passions and goals as an entrepreneur? Burnout is a huge topic these days. You can’t go five minutes on any publication without seeing some sort of article about burnout – and since the pandemic, this problem has skyrocketed. Balancing your neurotransmitters may be the key to healing your brain, and your burnout.

According to the American Psychological Association’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey of 1,501 U.S. adult workers:

  • 79 percent of employees experienced work-related stress in the month before the survey
  • 26 percent of employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress, such as lack of interest, motivation or energy
  • 19 percent reported a lack of effort at work
  • 36 percent reported cognitive weariness
  • 32 percent reported emotional exhaustion
  • 44 percent reported physical fatigue – a 38 percent increase since 2019

These numbers have remained high since the pandemic, and some studies even suggest that they’ve increased significantly. Global issues such as the ongoing pandemic, climate change, skyrocketing cost-of-living and the war in Gaza all factor into an epidemic of mental health issues amongst adults in the United States. I’m not here to tell you that you can magically improve it — but I can tell you how you can increase your brain’s resiliency. It isn’t hopeless, even if you’re in this demographic of exhaustion.

Where does happiness come from?

The secret is knowing where happiness and motivation actually come from. There are three main neurotransmitters in the brain: serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine. Serotonin controls your mood, when you sleep and wake up, as well as your routine. Among other things, motor activity increases serotonin activity in the brain. Oxytocin is known as the “love hormone” — this is triggered by touch, and is particularly relevant during sex, but also fires when hugging friends, petting animals or feeling any kind of intimate touch. Dopamine is the reward and motivation chemical. When you make a beautiful piece of art, for example, or write something that you’re proud of, dopamine urges you to do it even more.

There is a dark side to dopamine, however: this is the neurotransmitter that is thought to be responsible for addiction. Since dopamine can stimulate reward-seeking behavior, it can be maladaptive, and cause those who are mentally ill to lean on addictions that increase their dopamine, like binge eating, drugs, sex or mindless scrolling on social media. Does any of that sound familiar to you?

If it does, the good news is that there’s actionable ways to change these reward seeking behaviors. You just have to understand what’s going on in your brain.

The relationship between these neurotransmitters

According to this study in Neuropsychopharmacology, rats treated with SSRIs increased their dopaminergic sensitivity, suggesting that there are significant interactions between your serotonin levels and your dopamine receptors. What this means is still clinically unclear, as researchers haven’t yet reached a consensus on serotonin’s role in mental health. But it’s clear that having a balance of serotonin can increase your dopamine.

Without proper levels of serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine, increasing one or the other can cause our brains to become out of sync, and to become dependent on dopamine hits.

Balancing your brain

How do you increase your levels of each of these chemicals? I’m not going to lie and say that it’s easy – but it’s less complicated than you think.

To increase your serotonin:

  • Create a routine around taking care of yourself. Don’t try to do this all at once! Do something that makes you happy, like cooking a good meal.
  • While you’re at it cooking that good meal, add in foods that contain tryptophan. This is a known “precursor” chemical to serotonin.
  • Get outside! You might already know that lack of sunlight affects your vitamin D levels, but it also affects your serotonin, too. (SAD, anyone?) Aim for at least 15 minutes of sunlight each day.
  • Get good sleep. 7-9 hours a day is a good number to shoot for.
  • Get Aim for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day. (But ensuring it’s something that you enjoy is crucial.)
  • Do an activity that brings you joy at least once a day, every day, no matter how busy you are. This can be as simple as doodling little frogs on some business documents, or as involved as making an oil painting. What matters is that you do it regularly.
  • Practice some sort of mindfulness technique for 10-15 minutes each day. This could be yoga, meditation, journaling or whatever calms your nervous system.

Notice how each of these things falls under the umbrella of routine: routine is natural to humans. All of us, on some level, crave it, even those of us who live a nomadic life. To them, the nomad lifestyle is their routine. Figure out what yours needs to be, on your terms. (Just don’t listen to those Elon Musk wannabe types that tell you you have to wake up at 5 a.m. everyday and immediately go to the gym.)

Step 2: Share the love

Once you’ve tackled a better routine, it’s time to start thinking about improving your relationships. A routine and a stronger resiliency for daily life will increase your resiliency naturally, and increasing oxytocin will make you happier due to the feelings of love and connection the hormone triggers. As social creatures, we all need this: loneliness can and will kill you.

To increase your oxytocin:

  • Spend quality time with loved ones.
  • Engage in non-sexual intimate touch. You’d be surprised how much a hug from a friend can boost your mood long-term.
  • Pet your furry friend, if you have one. If you don’t, consider getting one! Pets are proven to boost mental health.
  • Practice gratitude. An Innovation Women member wrote an excellent book about this topic.
  • Take warm baths. These simulate the feeling of being held, calming and relaxing your muscles and nervous system.
  • Join some sort of cooperative activity, such as a sport or a club. This fosters a sense of community and belonging.
  • Make a conscious effort to improve your empathy. Notice how you are, or are not, showing up for the people around you.
  • Listen to calming music. The definition of this is different for everyone! Metalheads think screamo is incredibly calming, so everything is relative.

Oxytocin is all about improving the sense of belonging and connection in your life. Paradoxically, the more balanced your oxytocin levels are, the less you’ll depend on all of these things. You’ll be able to step into a calmer, more centered version of yourself, who is connected to others but also deeply connected to themself.

Step 3: Get motivated!

Finally, the dopamine behaviors. It’s somewhat inaccurate to say you’ll increase this last, since activities that increase serotonin and oxytocin also increase dopamine. But not every activity that increases dopamine also increases the other two neurotransmitters. Dopamine is often given a bad rep, but dopamine is what makes the magic of humans happen: dopamine is the reason for our intense drive, our motivation, our urge to make things better and better and better. Without dopamine, we wouldn’t have accomplished all we have.

To increase your dopamine:

  • Remember that cooking routine that you established? We’re going back to that. Foods rich in tyrosine are known to increase dopamine, so add your favorite of these into your diet, too.
  • Celebrate achievements, no matter how small, by giving yourself a small reward after. If that achievement is getting out of bed, so be it. Reward yourself with a little smoothie, or a quick bath.
  • Practice recognizing what kind of self-care your body and mind need right now. “Self-care” is a big buzzword at the moment, too. But this word has become twisted along with many other personal development terms. It’s important not just to give yourself a break, but to give yourself the right break.
  • Listen to uplifting music. This is the music that pumps you up, that gets you going! Start to think of music as your soundtrack for what you’re doing throughout the day. You don’t want to start your day with Mitski, do you? You want to start your day with Britney Spears!
  • Spend time in nature every day. The natural world is so healing for us: green is proven to relax and calm the mind.
  • Get a hobby that challenges you to grow as a person (outside of your business). Have you always wanted to surf? Learn a new language? Tap dance? Take risks and learn about yourself through the result.
  • Make time for creativity. This is one that overlaps with serotonin. Learning creative skills promotes plasticity in your imagination and gives you a sense of mastery and accomplishment when you reach a milestone in your creative skills.
  • Try to kick the caffeine and nicotine. Both are addictive and known to wreak havoc on your body’s neurotransmitters.

Dopamine’s reward-seeking drive doesn’t have to be destructive: it can drive you to become the best version of yourself. It is responsible for the motivation to discover new and interesting things. Heck, if it wasn’t for dopamine, you probably wouldn’t be reading this on your screen right now.

You’re not alone

If reading all of this seems daunting, and you’re struggling with your business, caring for yourself or both due to burnout and mental health issues, you’re not alone. You are in the company of millions of talented and driven individuals who have been driven to the brink by societal issues. You have the power to influence your own mood, yes, but you also have the right to be overwhelmed. Both can be true.

You’ll come out of this and realize that you’re stronger than you ever knew possible.

——

If you’re looking for a sense of connection with other entrepreneurs: look no further than our Lioness Monthly Networking sessions. This is a wonderful place to meet like-minded entrepreneurs who understand the struggles you’re going through as an entrepreneur in these uncertain times. The next one is Thursday, July 11.

About the author

Danny Bolter

Danny Bolter is a nonbinary writer, editor, and artist. They began writing at the age of seven when they realized that they had more to say than they could ever possibly verbally express; and they began editing at the age of sixteen, when their online friends needed some fanfiction fixed up. Bolter calls the greater Boston area home, along with their muse and nemesis, their cat Coco Puffs.

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