Mood Boosting Activities
While it may be true that depression is a chemical imbalance in the body, it does not necessarily follow that this imbalance is something that a person has no control over. While people may inherit a tendency toward depression, the chemicals in people’s bodies are highly affected by the activities in which they participate. It is known that if a healthy person sits in a dark room and restricts their activity to watching television, they are likely to get depressed within a couple weeks. The human body and brain need more stimulation to be healthy.
Researchers have identified four basic chemicals in the body that help sustain a positive mood. They include dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphin. Research has also identified activities that can naturally promote these chemicals to help maintain a good mood. These activities can be “taken” as a type of medicine.
Dopamine is the reward chemical. It is a neurotransmitter, which means it exists in the nervous system and is involved in the communication between nerves. A person can feel the positive boost of this chemical when they complete a task, like finishing a household chore, or a job at work. Completing self-care activities can increase dopamine. This chemical is the one that makes people want to do an activity again. It is dopamine that can make a video game so addictive. It is also what helps people feel good when they do something that gives a sense of accomplishment, and can be promoted by recognizing and celebrating small wins. Giving oneself credit for brushing their teeth or cooking a meal can boost the sense of reward that dopamine gives.
Oxytocin is the love hormone. A hormone is a chemical that is in the bloodstream and communicates to several organs in the body. Oxytocin is responsible for the warm feeling a person gets when they play with their dog or exchange a hug with a friend. Both of these activities are good ways to boost this chemical. It can also be boosted by doing something nice for someone, giving a compliment or listening to music. This is the chemical that makes us feel good when we help other people, like when we volunteer. It is the chemical of social cohesion and connection. Participating in social activities will result in feeling better.
Serotonin is considered the mood stabilizing neurotransmitter. It is often the focus of medication, such as in the class of medications called SSRI’s, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. But besides being a target of medication, it also responds to activity. People can increase their serotonin by meditating and with cardiac exercise, like running, swimming and cycling. It also responds positively to exposure to the sun and time in nature. Because spending time outdoors can boost serotonin, it is likely involved in Seasonal Affective Disorder, which responds to light therapy.
Endorphins are a person’s natural painkillers. Because pain is so closely related to mood, it is good to know how to boost this body pain defense. Research has shown that the old adage is true; laughter is the best medicine, or at least very good medicine. Things that make a person laugh will increase endorphins, leading to a decrease of the perception of pain and improved mood. Watching or reading a good comedy, visiting and laughing with friends, or playing games that lead to laughter can all boost the body’s painkiller. This may help explain why funny videos can be so addictive. Other activities that can boost endorphins include eating dark chocolate and exercising.
We know that mental health is so much more than being on the right medication. What we do matters. Working any of these activities into a daily routine can help boost these naturally-occurring chemicals on a regular basis to improve and stabilize the mood.
These positive activities can be thought of as a type of natural medication that happens inside the body. And, in the same way that sometimes people don’t feel like taking their medicine when they know they need to, these activities can be “taken” whether a person feels like doing it or not.
Starting a new activity can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t need to be. It can start small. Choosing one activity to do for 10 minutes can be a great start. It also can be very helpful to include any of these activities in a daily routine, whether a morning or evening routine, so it becomes a habit, therefore requiring less thought and overt motivation. Incorporating chemical-boosting activities into a daily routine will improve a person's mood and wellbeing on an ongoing basis, and may even reduce the chances of future depressive episodes.
MyMichigan Health provides a Psychiatric Partial Hospitalization Program at MyMichigan Medical Center Alma for those who need a higher level of treatment than traditional outpatient. Those interested in more information about the PHP program may call (989) 466-3253. Those interested in more information on MyMichigan’s comprehensive behavioral health programs may visit www.mymichigan.org/mentalhealth.