Happy Hormone Hacks to Help You Heal
Happy Hormone Hacks to Help You Heal

Happy Hormone Hacks to Help You Heal

Serotonin and dopamine: For most of us, these are familiar words with somewhat unfamiliar functions. You can read all the pop psychology articles you want about these two neurotransmitters, but today we’re going to normalize how these fluctuating brain chemicals can support an ongoing sensation of happiness while we grieve. For more information on how this conversation can support you, visit MandyCapehart.com/patreon for the workbook for this week’s episode.

Okay, I’ll admit it – you can’t really “hack your hormones” in the way you might think. If we could control the busy, necessary hormones in our bodies, I suspect many of our ailments would disappear rather quickly. We can, however, influence our hormones and our brains in such a way that we experience less of the hormonal spectrum swing that creates tension and brain fog in our grief work.

Research tells us that when we are grieving, changes occur in our brain that impact the messengers sent to the different systems in our bodies. When we feel fatigue, brain fog, nausea, lack of appetite, lack of sleep, lack of concern toward our well-being…we don’t need to immediately panic. All of these symptoms are typical in grievers, and tend to also fluctuate on a spectrum. And yet, while we are dealing with these difficult symptoms of grief, we can send additional messages to the brain to help stabilize the flow and fluctuations of the so-called “happiness hormones”. It is true that we can pursue happiness at the same time of doing our grief work without resorting to minimizing or bypassing our pain.

It is essential to recognize that fluctuations in dopamine and serotonin are normal, especially during emotionally challenging times like grief. Rather than striving for constant happiness, embracing a full spectrum of emotions can lead to more authentic and sustainable well-being. Understanding that it is natural for these neurotransmitter levels to vary can help reduce self-judgment and promote a healthier acceptance of one’s emotional state.

Before we go any further, let’s recall that we reduce self-judgment in order to remain holistically aligned within ourselves and with our values. That means we consider our thoughts, our emotions, our physical sensations, and our sense of connectedness or openness to the world around us as important and expected to shift. While these parts of our whole are interplaying for our wellness and to protect the state we most want to inhabit, we must learn to build up our own window of tolerance for the fluctuations.

We know the range of emotions that arise in grief is vast, from numbness to rage, sadness to relief. This is a highly individualized experience, but we can also reliably predict how certain neurochemical changes will occur. Dopamine and serotonin levels, known for their role in managing mood, energy, and behavior, can fluctuate with a greater range of change in grievers. A handful of studies on the impact of prolonged grief on dopamine or serotonin levels in individuals underscore what we could probably have predicted: disrupted serotonin activity and dopamine dysfunction are correlated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, sadness, and a lack of inner motivation.

So now that we’ve named what we already knew through our lived experience, how can we take this affirmed knowledge and move toward hacking into happiness? First, we pause. We honor where we’ve been. The body you’re in – the brain you’re using right now – they’ve been through a lot. They are with you, but they are weary. Noticing the pain you’ve carried and connecting some of the dots as to why the pain is lasting may remove some of your shame and guilt and self-judgement. You’re not to blame if you’re “still grieving” because it’s not just a mindset change that will heal you. However, there are ways we can partner with our brain and body to support a neurotransmitter production and regulation without chemical interference.

While we cannot control the fluctuations of dopamine and serotonin, we can influence their activity through lifestyle choices and mindfulness practices. Here are seven strategies proven to enhance the positive impact of dopamine and serotonin during seasons of grief that you can try the next time you notice your energy or mood is remaining in a lower state:

  1. Exercise: Physical activity, particularly aerobic exercise, boosts both dopamine and serotonin levels. Regular exercise can improve mood, reduce stress, and increase overall well-being. It doesn’t need to be a 75 minute session of dripping in sweat to make an impact. Aim to raise your baseline heart rate for 30 minutes a day at minimum.
  2. Nutrition: Diet plays a significant role in neurotransmitter production. Foods rich in tryptophan (a precursor to serotonin production) like turkey, nuts, and seeds, and those that boost dopamine production, such as bananas and avocados, can support emotional health. Remember feeling “hangry”? This is what we mean. Foods with higher protein levels and a balance of complex carbohydrates will also help you feel fuller longer and improve your overall mood.
  3. Sunlight Exposure: Sunlight can increase serotonin levels naturally. Spending time outdoors, especially in the morning, can enhance mood and regulate sleep patterns. Just remember your sunscreen, please.
  4. Mindfulness and Meditation: Practices like mindfulness and meditation can help regulate stress and improve emotional resilience. These techniques have been shown to increase both dopamine and serotonin levels. And again, we’re not looking for a 75 minute session of “OMs and I am the Changes.” We want to start small and build steady, sustainable habits.
  5. Social Connections: Maintaining strong social ties can boost serotonin levels and foster a sense of belonging and support. Sharing feelings with trusted friends or family members can be particularly beneficial during grief, but we all know this is a tough spot to pursue when you’re hurting. I’m a big fan of making a secret code with your friends or family. Sometimes putting the words together and asking for connection is too challenging, but sending a single emoji? That’s like raising the Bat Signal and trusting BatMan will arrive just in time. Let your friends and family build that super response on your behalf, and notice how it makes you feel.
  6. Adequate Sleep: Sleep is crucial for neurotransmitter regulation. Ensuring sufficient and quality sleep can help maintain balanced serotonin and dopamine levels. And yes, all of the above can also improve your sleepy time struggles. Grief disrupts our dreams because we tend to minimize or hide our big feelings and needs during the daytime. So when else will our brain be able to try to make sense of the painful memories? Experiment with the earlier strategies to build a healthier bedtime routine and notice if your sleep or insomnia improves.
  7. Creative Activities: Engaging in creative activities, such as painting, writing, or playing music, can stimulate dopamine release and provide a sense of accomplishment and joy. Taking any kind of creative action when you’re grieving or just feeling stuck in your story can bring the playful, childlike side of you to the surface. Although we wouldn’t assume it, kids and those with a playful, childlike demeanor are able to navigate grief with more honesty and acceptance of the uncertainties in life. Leaning into our younger selves and trusting the younger part to be creative is a great way to naturally encourage dopamine and serotonin release.

The interplay between dopamine, serotonin, and our emotional well-being is complex yet profoundly influential. In the context of grief, these neurotransmitters help shape our experience of loss and well-being. By becoming more aware of their roles and embracing healthy lifestyle practices, we can support our neurochemical balance and navigate grief with greater resilience. This approach encourages a holistic view of happiness, one that honors the ebb and flow of our emotions and fosters a deeper connection to ourselves and others as we heal.

Thank you for listening to episode 140 of Restorative Grief. I always smile when a conversation about hacks or happiness comes up, because it allows me to invite you into reality – there is no hack or quick fix for grief. And yet, we can build healthier habits and play the long game, trusting our holistic selves to stay present in the work and effect lasting growth. Understanding how these neurotransmitters function, especially in the context of a healthy grief process, can help us navigate emotional turbulence with greater awareness and resilience.

If this is your first time listening to the show, thanks for coming around! I hope this conversation helps you redefine what happiness means to you, and inspires you to try something new to support your mental health and healing journey. Check out the show notes for more info about Restorative Grief coaching and the Patreon bonuses available to you. Please remember to subscribe to the show, drop me a 5 star review, and share this episode on your socials. You never know when that one friend needs a reminder that slow and steady are the perfect pace for grief work.

And speaking of, before we go, one last thing. Please remember, the only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. Thank you for listening, I’ll see you next week.

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