If I told you there was a substance that would make you feel happy, like you were coping really well with life, calm, brave and (as an added bonus) was a fantastic pain reliever, would you be interested?
And if you found out that it was completely free and had no negative side effects? Even better, right?
And how about if it were something you could make yourself… no equipment needed? Perfect!
Well, it’s true. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, that we all produce, that does exactly that.
Everything that we think, feel, or understand about the world comes from a chain of neurons firing across our brain. In the synapses, the gaps between the neurones, we produce chemical messengers… neurotransmitters, and serotonin is one of these. There are other ones, like dopamine for example. Dopamine is more reward driven, it is the big excited high of a great first date or winning a race. It drives us to look for that experience again and is the reason heartbreak feels so rough, and musicians have a notoriously hard time with their mental health. When we experience that ‘drop-off’ of dopamine our brains kind of go “hang on a second, where’s all that good stuff gone… find that again”
Serotonin is different. Serotonin is that lovely “I can deal with anything” optimistic, positive, calm feeling, and if there was ever a time when that might come in useful, I would say it’s about now!
If you have ever taken anti-depressants you have probably heard of serotonin before. Most modern anti-depressants are SSRI’s; Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (catchy!) They work by stopping the serotonin that we produce last a bit longer.
The reason we know that serotonin has been produced, and the reason we recognise that ‘feel good’ sensation, is because in the synapses (the gaps between the neurons) we have receptors for different messengers (neurotransmitters).
We also have neuroplasticity; the ability of our brains to ‘clean up’ bits that we are not using and use the energy somewhere else. So, if we go for a significant amount of time without producing much serotonin, our brains think that the serotonin receptors are just sitting around not doing much and will get rid of them. The bit of serotonin we do produce gets re-absorbed without having much effect.
SSRI’s slow down this re-absorption and our brain thinks there’s a bit more serotonin floating around and will start to put receptors back in. That’s the reason anti-depressants take some time to work. You don’t just take a tablet and wake up happier the morning after… It takes some time for the receptors to be back in action.
So generally, the more serotonin the better, but how to we get it in the first place. Well in three reliable and predictable ways.
Humans are essentially rewarded for behaviours that benefit us in some way, and we can class these into three groups:
1) Positive action. Humans are designed to hunt and gather, to feed themselves and their families. Now clearly, we don’t need to do too much hunting and gathering, because… well, supermarkets, but we do need positive action. We are rewarded for activity. My positive action won’t be the same as yours. Some people like crocheting, some skydiving and everything in between, but when we take part in meaningful activity, we produce serotonin. In its simplest example, going out for a walk around the block nearly always feels better than sitting on the sofa ruminating about a problem. When we fight with our families, someone taking a bit of ‘time out’ and doing something else often calms them down. It’s the serotonin.
2) Positive interaction. Humans are safer together than separately. We’re social, collaborative creatures because it’s nearly always in our best survival interests. When we spend time with people that we like, love, trust or respect in some way, then we produce lots of lovely serotonin. Tough at the moment I know, when we are all separated, but a text, a chat on the phone or a video call still produces that collaborative, safety response. And remember I said it was a great pain reliever? Well, it’s the reason that grandparents with arthritic joint pain can be engrossed in playing with their grandchildren with little, or no pain at all, for a period of time. It’s the serotonin.
3) Positive thinking. And I don’t say this lightly. Clearly there’s more to feeling happier (or getting over depression) than “Oh great, I’ll just think positively… everything will be marvellous then!” but it can be a really useful tool. I wrote a blog a few months ago about what happens when we think the worst or catastrophise https://greentreetherapy.co.uk/blog-1/62-pressing-the-emergency-button We have these incredible brains that can produce physical feelings of fear or sadness when nothing difficult or threatening is happening. It’s a useful tool if you don’t want to forget where the snakes hang out in the jungle, not so useful at 3am when you’re awake and sweating with anxiety over a work deadline. Well luckily the reverse is also true. If I were to ask you to tell me in detail about some of the happiest moments of your life, something funny that happened at work, or a time that you felt really proud of yourself, you would feel good, smile and relax during your description. The same is true, even if you were to tell me about moments when things have felt a little better and you have felt a little happier. It’s the serotonin.
An exercise that a lot of people find really helpful is just keeping an eye on when these three P’s (Positive action, Positive interaction and Positive thought) show up. It can be challenging the other way around, like when you make New Year’s resolutions, if you start trying to shoe horn these behaviours into your life. Just keeping an eye open for them however, can have surprisingly effective results. Give it a try and let me know how you get on.