Experience These Natural Highs

When it comes to ways in which people think, feel, and behave, there is no area of science more revealing and fascinating than neuroscience. Here at Notable, we love tackling complex subjects like this to figure out how they can be applied to enhance the young professional (YP) lifestyle. In other words, we are all about “life hacks.” As for neuroscience, we are currently hooked on the idea of “natural highs” (think “runner’s high” and adrenaline rush.) We all know that our brains, at a very basic level, run on chemicals and electricity. But did you know that we can actually manipulate those systems by engaging in certain activities? No, we’re not talking Rob Ford-style activities. Once again enlisting the brilliance of YP psychologist Dr. Joe Flanders of the Mind Space Clinic in Montreal, we have discovered just how to take advantage of the feel-good neurochemicals we all possess to enjoy our own natural highs. 

First off, Dr. Joe stresses that this area of science is still pretty new – and that what is known today may just be the tip of the neurological iceberg – but for now this is what he has to share about the five main neurochemicals, Oxytocin, Dopamine, Serotonin, Epinephrine, and Endorphins. 

Oxytocin: “Oxytocin is sort of in fashion these days in neuroscience. It is typically implicated in our experience of relationships and social attachments. So any time you feel really connected to someone else, either through a hug, a conversation, or an empathic look, oxytocin is released and it strengthens that relationship. Interestingly, it appears that oxytocin is released following a stressful experience, which strengthens the bond you experience with someone who helps reassure you and calm you down.” 

Experience it: “There’s nothing like living intense (or even stressful) experiences with a friend or lover to strengthen a relationship. I call this the ‘war buddy’ phenomenon because the bonds that are formed in that kind of environment are impossible to replicate. So don’t just sit at home and watch Breaking Bad. Get out there and do things together. Go on trips, challenge each other, and support each other through tough times.” 

Dopamine: “Dopamine is a fun one. It is implicated in the reward system of the brain. So any time you get a reward (i.e. promotion, new iPhone, sex) or even anticipate getting one, dopamine kicks in and sharpens your attention so the brain remembers how to get it again next time. We tend to feel excited, confident, and energized when having dopamine-related experiences. The problem is that things that stimulate the dopamine system (i.e. most drugs) can be highly addictive.” 

Experience it: “Any sport or leisure activity that involves competition, danger, intense physical activity, challenge, and dominance negotiating tends to implicate dopamine. So get out there and ski, surf, play hockey, and fight for top spot! Novelty is also a big trigger for dopamine. So try new activities, food, and music, meet new people… and keep your sex life spicy!” 

Serotonin: “Serotonin is considered the conductor of the neuro-chemical symphony. It is present in many regions across the brain and is involved in high-order regulation of many biological systems. So generally, when everything in your brain is in balance, serotonin is doing its job. When you are depressed, for example, your mood is deregulated. When you are highly aggressive, your behaviour is deregulated. Both of these phenomena have been linked to poor serotonin function. That is why many antidepressants act on the serotonin system, and people tend to feel much more emotionally stable and balanced.”

Experience it: “At the end of the day, take a few minutes to write down 3-5 things that went well that day. The list doesn’t have to be made of epic achievements like getting a promotion or finishing your dissertation. You can list small things like getting to a meeting on time, eating a nice meal, or having a good conversation. There is evidence to suggest that cultivating the sense that your life is running smoothly supports serotonin function.”  

Epinephrine: “Epinephrine has a more precise function than the others, typically implicated in the ‘fight or flight’ response. For example, if you’re walking in the woods and you come across a snake, you will probably notice a variety of changes happen in your body including increased heart rate, respiration, muscle tension, and sweating. And you’ll probably notice yourself running away even before you get a chance to decide if that’s the right thing to do or not.” 

Experience it: “During the surge of energy we feel during the fight or flight response, the body is metabolizing more glucose to fuel our muscles for fighting or fleeing danger, so it makes us feel energized and excited. Assuming we actually survive the danger and all ends well, we can experience what can feel like a “high” as dopamine is then released. That’s why there are so many people out there who love extreme sports. Riding the edge and flirting with danger can maintain that high, called ‘flow.’ People love flow and there are lots who dedicate their entire lives to cultivating it on a regular basis.”

Endorphins: “Endorphins are an example of the Opioid class of neurotransmitters. Opioids are active in the emotional centres of the brain and associated with a calm, peaceful and euphoric state of mind. Endorphins tend to be responsible for that great feeling we have following exercise and sex. We tend to really like the opioid high and some of the most addictive drugs on earth (e.g. heroine) act on this system.”

Experience it: “Aside from exercise and sex, I recommend spending quality chill time with yourself and others. Dim the lights, get in the hot tub, drink some wine, and explore some soulful and sensual moments.”