Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Our mind: As powerful as any drug

Did you know that we have chemicals in the brain as powerful as drugs for pain, depression, anxiety, and other conditions? Among them are neurotransmitters called endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine, which are often referred to as the "feel good" or "happy" chemicals. Let's play around with endorphins...the body's natural pain killer (our own private narcotic!). Endorphins affect us like codeine and morphine by blocking a cell's transmission of pain signals, but without the addiction. The word endorphin derives from two words - endogenous (from within) and morphine.

In addition to decreased feelings of pain, secretion of endorphins leads to feelings of euphoria, modulation of appetite, enhancement of the immune response, and fewer negative effects of stress. Endorphins are popularly associated with “runner’s high”, but no need to worry if you don’t run. There are numerous ways to increase production of these potent brain chemicals besides strenuous workouts. These include but are not limited to the following:

A good movie
Positive thinking/affirmations
Physical exercise
Music and dancing
Laughter (even fake laughter does the trick! The brain doesn’t know the difference between real or fake laughter. Even the anticipation of something funny releases endorphins)
Regular sleep/wake cycle
Fun hobbies (arts and crafts, photography, beadwork, quilting, cooking, nature walks)
Quality time with family and friends
Sex (including cuddling, kissing, and holding hands with a romantic partner)
Good deeds (the flood of endorphins and serotonin caused by being generous has been called “helper’s high”)
Reading a good book
Meditation and controlled breathing exercises (breathe through your stomach; not your chest)
Being around animals
Sauna/hot tub
Alcohol (light drinking; heavy drinking negates the effect)
Nutrition (anti-inflammatory foods)

Practically all of these things are at our disposal, so we should try and take advantage of them as much as we can. Not all of them will be of help (or interest) to everyone, but I wanted to share many of the options available to us. I also recognize that when in pain and feeling mentally down (I have been there!!), these things are not always easy to do or yield results the first or first few times doing them. If this is the case for you, maybe start with one thing you enjoy and do your best to make it part of your lifestyle.

Perhaps before starting there, practice the art of appreciation and gratitude. This is a great first step when we are suffering, most of which comes from expectation. Most of us have a blueprint for how life should be and when it isn't how we planned, it can cause depression. If this is the case, focus on something or someone you appreciate, do your best to sit with that feeling, and then move forward with hopefully more peace in your heart. Anything that gets us looking outward and/or releasing pent-up feelings has the potential of helping.

People often ask me the different ways I manage my chronic pain associated with dystonia, and I usually list many of these things. I can't say for sure how much they play a role, but when I did not do these things on a regular basis, pain was more severe. I was also depressed and anxiety ridden, a far cry from the person I was pre-dystonia, and a far cry from the person I am now, thanks to many of these things.

A fun fact to keep in mind is that neutral or positive sensory messages travel through the nervous system faster than painful messages. More specifically, soothing sensations travel up to seven times faster than sharp or burning pain. This means that if soothing sensations and painful sensations reach the “pain gate” to the brain at the same time, the pleasant sensations will prevail, blocking the slower, painful ones.1 In other words, to reverse the course of pain and depression, it helps to do things that consistently provide reliable pleasant body experiences that compete successfully with pain (i.e., activities that produce endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine).

An easy way to remember how to harness the power of the brain's natural drugs is to live by the popular saying, "Sing like no one is listening, dance like nobody's watching, love like you've never been hurt, and live like it's heaven on earth."

In other words, have fun and do your best to not care so much what others think about you. Live your life on your terms. Never give up. Be patient with yourself. Never lose hope. Trust that everything will always work out. All of it is easier said than done, but when we get the "feel good" hormones flowing, nothing and no one can ever take away our peace of mind and body.

1) Phillips, M. (2007) Reversing Chronic Pain. North Atlantic Books: Berkeley, CA

Tom Seaman is a Certified Professional Life Coach in the area of health and wellness, and author of the book, Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey, a comprehensive resource for anyone suffering with any life challenge. He is also a motivational speaker, chronic pain and dystonia awareness advocate, health blogger, and volunteers for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) as a support group leader, for WEGO Health as a patient expert panelist, and is a member and writer for Chronic Illness Bloggers Network. To learn more about Tom’s coaching practice and get a copy of his book, visit www.tomseamancoaching.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dystoniabook1 and Instagram


  1. I enjoyed your blog and agree that to get immersed in something you like can take your mind off the pain. I speak as someone who was in chronic pain but after a period of remission I am not in as much pain as I was, although I am on a number of drugs to help me. When I was in really bad pain it was hard to think positively at all.

    1. Thank you! I agree about the difficulty in being positive when in really bad pain. It was a real challenge for me as well when it was more severe. I didn't have the tools at my disposal as I do now which I would like to think would have helped, but getting motivated to do anything at all when it seems all for naught is tough. I think baby steps and acknowledging the actions we take are really important. Thanks again and I hope your pain remains at bay.

  2. Those smoothie bags are a good idea. I should do that! ��

    1. Thanks! I came up with the idea when I was helping someone with cerebral palsy find an easy way to make his smoothies since he didn't have full use of both hands.