The human body is a magical thing. I feel phenomenally blessed by the fact that each and every year I am able to deepen my connection to self a little further, by learning something new.
The most recent ‘something new’ (though it might count as a ‘something old, since re-learned’) has been in the form of the chemicals we have in our bodies and the experiences we have as a result of those chemicals, aided by the Simon Sinek book, Leaders Eat Last.
As I have forged a path towards whole body intelligence (living from the whole of my body, not just my overthinking brain), I have become aware of the feelings that are created in my body when different things occur; the way my heart starts to bubble when I feel anxiety, the intense elation when I get excited, the flip in my stomach when I feel worried (and so on). I’ve learnt to map my reactions to things, what they mean, and for the most part at least, choose a better experience.
What I hadn’t really considered, was the ‘science bit’ that went behind it all, the physiological reasons that are behind the way our body reacts. In learning a bit more about that ‘science bit’ I feel like I have taken on an even deeper level of understanding of myself and my reactions, from that one of the most important F words; forgiveness.
So, now for the ‘science bit’, pay attention:
Why I get super excited by the discovery of new things
I’ve always been someone driven by the thirst of discovery; the latest thing, an awesome book, a new song. I put it down to my instinctive curiosity alone, without considering the chemicals in the body that were driving some of my behaviour.
We have chemicals within us that can conspire to make us feel good when we achieve something like a goal or in my case, a discovery. Dopamine is one of those chemicals: a neurotransmitter that can impact lots of things in the body that relate to well being, providing a little boost when we do something that makes us feel good.
It has helped to fuel some of my addictive personality behaviours (and there have been many over the years; whether sneaker obsession, art collecting obsession, music obsession, food obsession – the list is endless). I tended to climb to a peak of obsession on each one, realise what I am doing, pull back, and then find a new obsession to take its place. With my developing understanding of these behaviours, it’s become easier for me to call them out and act upon them, before reaching critical mass (or a ridiculous sneaker collection of 50+ pairs!).
The trouble with dopamine fuelled behaviour is that it is often insatiable. You will never be satisfied by landing the object of your desire, you will just start thinking about what the next thing might be. Learning to choose a more holistic, longer term kind of happiness has therefore been really significant for me.
Why I have strong willpower and drive towards achieving a goal
Endorphins are another kind of feel good chemical released during things like exercise. They can also be part of the reward the body provides when you achieve something, and are likely a big part of why my willpower has been so strong in the delivery of things against all odds, whether a course or a work based project. Achievement makes us feel good.
When I did Weight Watchers in 2008, it was like the waves parted, and suddenly I had a framework that provided the bedrock for a total re-education around my relationship with food. Both of those chemicals supported me in losing over 3 stone (22kg). Dopamine provides the big rush that we can easily become addicted to, but endorphins help us to stay on course and weather the physical and emotional storm of achieving something.
Why I have been so led by obsessions at times of my life
Whilst for the most part I now live in a world where I have successfully nurtured love inside and outside of me, that hasn’t always been the case. When I have been lacking in love, the void has been filled by the kind of obsessions I mentioned above. The dopamine hit of a social media like, or a new pair of sneakers was what I used to sustain me.
The more I have been able to develop love within myself and for myself, the less my obsessions have been able to take hold. I believe oxytocin has played a big part in that. Oxytocin is often called the love hormone, as it is something that can create a feeling of connection to others and help reinforce trust. Love is something that makes us feel whole, and in doing so, the urges for instant gratification can be allowed to ebb further away.
Why I like doing stuff for other people
As human beings, we are driven to form connections with other people by oxytocin, but also by serotonin. Serotonin is often called the happy chemical, it makes us feel good. It also helps the body find a rhythm with things like your body clock.
These are the chemicals that drive us to do things for other people, because it feels good. Serotonin also enables us to feel the weight of responsibility on things; we don’t want to let people down, we want to make people proud. This is also why we care what other people think of us; I am no different in that sense.
Why I work hard to create community around me
Wherever I go I have this urge to connect with the people around me, whether in a shop or in a class. It’s not a consciously calculated thing, so I’d previously just put it down to me creating the kind of experience I want to have in the world, one that is founded in love.
I feel good when people are happy to see me, I feel good when I can see a person feels seen. I would suggest this drive may be down to something a little more primitive, I am serving the needs of my chemical brothers; serotonin and oxytocin, my need to feel like I am part of something.
Why I have had such a physical experience of stress in my body
This is down to the stress hormones our body produces, with the primary one being cortisol. It actually also plays a super important role in the body, managing how we process food, our sleep rhythm, our blood pressure. When we wake up in the morning it tends to be a little higher, then decreases throughout the day.
For our body to function correctly, it has to be in balance. When we experience stress, our cortisol levels spike. This can provide important messages to us to get out of the way of harm, but a prolonged increase is horrible for our body.
The only way to circumvent this is by either removing the stressful situations from your life, or by finding a way to better control your responses to stress. My approach has been a blend of both. I completely reinvented the stressful life I chose in my 20s, built a new one and learnt how to develop stillness in my body through things like meditation.
Now I have a much better read on when something has been triggered within me, and I can choose what my response is, most of the time at least!
Why I have stayed in situations that are bad for my health
Whether personal or professional; I have been great at holding fast to situations that don’t serve me. I can now see that I was in the hold of my chemical reactions. Looking specifically at my unhappy marriage in my 20s; my stress levels would be triggered daily, and then smallest good thing would happen, and it would calm me back down. I was a whirlwind of dopamine and cortisol, never in balance.
I managed to fool myself that the tiny dopamine hits were enough, that that was what love felt like. I can’t tell you how thankful I have been to discover the heady effects of oxytocin in my 30s. I have been lucky enough to find the right configuration of things to forge a path towards true joyfulness.
Why I feel able to be fully me in some situations and not in others
Have you ever noticed how in some situations you can speak eloquently and freely and in others you can stumble over your words? How you can sing like a rockstar in the shower but your voice falters around others? This can largely be down to a stress response. In situations where we don’t feel safe, our stress response is triggered and that impacts our ability to belt out that Broadway number: our bodies are simply too busy dealing with/processing cortisol to reach those notes. This is also why we can feel a little off with some people and not with others.
In my 20s, I spent a lot of my time triggered; at work and at home, and didn’t feel safe in either. I wasn’t living in anything remotely close to balance. I wasn’t taking care of myself in any sense, or giving my body the chance to produce the chemicals it needed to thrive, serotonin to boost self confidence, oxytocin to relieve stress or lessen cravings. I was all cortisol errrythang.
How I have been able to choose something different
Chemical balance on all counts is supported and maintained by that good old fashioned toolkit of:
- REST: Making sure you develop a steady and enriching approach to sleep and recovery. Your bedtime routine is everything. Read more about that here.
- NOURISHMENT: Eating foods that are in accordance with what your body truly wants, at a time it really wants it.
- QUENCH: Drinking water, and other non chemical altering beverages. I avoid caffeine and alcohol altogether.
- MOVEMENT: Moving your body in a way that feels right for you. Some days that is a walk for me, others that might be barre, others that might be yoga.
- LOVE: Creating fulfilling relationships with others that truly serve you, and that build and reinforce the psychological safety you need to thrive.
“This is what work-life balance means. It has nothing to do with the hours we work or the stress we suffer. It has to do with where we feel safe. If we feel safe at home, but we don’t feel safe at work, then we will suffer what we perceive to be a work-life imbalance. If we have strong relationships at home and at work, if we feel like we belong, if we feel protected in both, then the powerful forces of a magical chemical like oxytocin can diminish the effect of stress and cortisol. With trust, we do things for each other, look out for each other and sacrifice for each other. All of which adds up to our sense of security inside a Circle of Safety. We have a feeling of comfort and confidence at work that reduces the overall stress we feel because we do not feel our well-being is threatened.” – Simon Sinek