Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Understanding the Brain to Beat Stress

Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Increased levels of stress chemicals (cortisol and adrenaline) wreak havoc on our brain and bodies, interfering with memory, learning, mood regulation and even weight regulation.  Dopamine, with it's friendly counterpart serotonin, counteracts the meanie chemicals our brain releases when we are stressed.

Serotonin is the brain chemical that makes us feel calm and relaxed.  Dopamine is our brain's reward chemical.  When we do something that the brain wants to encourage us to do again, it releases dopamine.

Different activities will produce different levels of dopamine.  Do you want to guess at an activity the brain really wants to encourage us to continue, and so releases large amounts of dopamine?  It has to do with the propagation of our species.

Eating is another dopamine producing activity.  Apparently our brain wants us to continue to find sustenance so it can function. Makes sense, doesn't it.  Now I understand why I tend to head for the kitchen when I'm stressed, too.  

Other dopamine producing activities are (in no particular order):
  • Exercise
  • Music (90 beats/min or higher, with easy to remember, non-threatening lyrics)
  • Chocolate (actually increases dopamine production by 150%)
  • Social Success
  • Expectation of Money (such as the anticipation of pay day)
  • Vanquishing a known enemy (such as when your football team wins - but I wonder about beating the bad guy on a video game, too)
I wouldn't recommend gambling or attacking the human source of your stress--unless you want to end up penniless, in jail and more stressed. However, the next time you find your shoulder tensed into steel rods, your stomach tightened to the point you feel like barfing and can't shake a glum or cranky mood, turn on some music, eat some chocolate with a friend and/or get some exercise. Your brain will make you glad you did.


  1. very cool post. I KNEW there was a reason I love chocolate so much! ;)

  2. I think a big source of stress (for me) would be swimming in the water with a great white shark.

  3. Interesting post, Lara! and I am currently anticipating payday very much ;) But then, that's nothing new.

    Glad to hear there's another reason I should keep eating chocolate. Of course, I've now restricted myself to only 70% or higher dark chocolate. I'm not complaining, I love the stuff!

  4. I definitely need to eat more chocolate! Great post.

  5. Two birds with one stone: Getting off your duff and rocking to your favorite high-energy jams for 20 minutes. Good stuff, Lara!

  6. I can vouch for chocolate and social success. I curse at my husband for buying Halloween candy early. All those bite sized Snickers chunks add up! lol

  7. Wow,

    Now I know what's going on in the remaining six wrinkles of my poor oul' brain :)

  8. Hmm, so eating chocolate while running is a doubly good thing ;) ;)

  9. Hi, everyone! I'm having internet issues, so I'm going to write one comment instead of replying to each w/ embedded comments, hopfully upping the chances it will actually get published!

    @Tamara - yes, I finally get the need for m&ms while I write!

    @Michael - That would definitely stress me out. Maybe swimming fast would produce dopamine, though. :)

    @Trisha - good for you to go dark chocolate. I don't mind it, but milk chocolate is soooo yummy!

    @D.D. - I'm wondering if having other things like caramel and nuts messes with the dopamine. Nah. I'm sure my brain likes those sweet treats, too, and rewards me for bringing them to it!

    @Vaughn - you are a music man! I love the links you put on Facebook to different types of music. You widen my musical world!

    @Diane - I try to control myself, but just tonight ate three snack size Milk duds and one snack size heath bar. I'm wondering how many it takes to make one candy bar.

    @Mark - the training I went to was fascinating. The instructor gave us basic brain function 101 in a way I could understand. Our brain truly is amazing, and I'll say it, even miraculous. I appreciate the old grey matter a lot more, now. :)

    @Kelley - As long as you don't choke!!

  10. I learned something interesting yesterday and it (sort of) corresponds with your post. Higher levels of cortisol are found in the body in early morning, and decrease throughout the day. I've been doing a bit of experimentation on the best times to write. I love to write early in the morning, but I'm wondering if the excess stress chemicals at that time are not helping. I find I'm extra critical of my writing in the a.m. Maybe writing in the evening would be better. Great post. :)

  11. Interesting! I've noticed I write better in late morning (10ish). I wonder if that might be why. I do know I'm so tired by nighttime that writing after 9:00 yields very little. Our body rhythms are so interesting! I'm hoping you'll let me know how it goes for you writing later in the day. :)

  12. Replies
    1. Hee, hee! And I don't think it has to be dark chocolate, either. Milk chocolate is fine, too!


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