The Mood-Mending Power Of Endorphins
A troubling email landed in my inbox with an innocent ping. In its subject box were the words “urgent” and “read immediately”. My heart sank like a stone in water. It was my solicitor informing me that a case I was pursuing would not be heard for another four months and would cost me far more time and money than I’d been led to believe. And the worst thing about it was that it was completely out of my hands. There was nothing I could do.
This was painful news. Literally. My chest immediately felt tight, my mouth became dry and my arms and legs were as heavy as planks of wood.
If only I could go back to bed to try and convince myself it was just a nightmare.
Instead, however, I went for a run. A long, glorious, sweaty run. Luckily, it was a bright, sunny day, and as I live near a river with a park alongside it, I have a great place to exercise outdoors. I ran further that day than I usually would, only stopping after completing 10km. I followed this with 30 laps at my local pool.
After an hour and a half of getting hot, sweaty and wet, I realised I’d wholly changed my mood, as if flicking a switch from despair to relaxed. It was such a relief. Imagine taking a fast-track tranquilliser with an anti-depressant on top. Which, of course, in a way I had. By exercising so intensely, I’d released endorphins into my body. These naturally occurring “feel good” chemicals are created by intensive exercise and are so called because of the instant feelings of serenity and even euphoria they create.
A study by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health found that running for just 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the chance of low mood by 26 per cent – the equivalent of taking a low-to-moderate dose of an anti-depressant pill. Not just that, but by exercising in this way, I was also encouraging other positive changes in my brain, from neural growth to a reduction in inflammation.
“Our bodies are powerful tools that can change our moods if used the right way”
Our bodies are powerful mood-altering tools if used the right way. Being aware of our bodies, from moment to moment, is the best way to capture and understand our moods. That sense of being “gutted” – the way that I had felt when I first read the email – is an apt descriptor, as it reminds us where our feelings are first sensed, inside the core of our being: our guts.
Neuroscientists have discovered that we have a mass of neural tissue – made up of the same cells found in our brains – in our stomachs. This explains the butterflies-in-the-tummy sensation we feel when we are anxious or afraid. Neurons pick up the change in blood flow away from our digestion in anticipation of either protecting ourselves or running away – the famous fight-or-flight response. They also explain the empty, sinking feeling we sometimes get when we receive bad news, just like I did with the disappointing email from my solicitor. Our gut neurons are communicating these sensations to our brains, which interpret them as either fear or sadness in a feedback loop that scientists are still investigating and making discoveries about today.
Later that day, the elation I’d felt after my workout wore off like a comfort blanket being taken away. I spent that afternoon and evening hanging out with friends, which, for the time that I was with them, kept difficult feelings at bay. When I returned home, I foolishly read the email again on my phone. I felt my low mood and anxiety seeping back, not as intensely as when I’d first read the message, but my mouth started to feel dry and my heart began to beat faster. But I was too tired and, besides, it was too late to exercise now.
In this instance, I used a proven technique I’ve used with clients who need tools to calm a panic attack. I started to count the time it took me to breathe in and out, making my breathing slower and more deliberate than usual. I also counted my exhalations, making them twice as long as my inhalations. I focused on the numbers I was counting and the sensation of my chest and stomach rising and falling, distracting myself from the email I’d just re-read. About five minutes later, I started to relax again – but not before putting my phone on silent. No chance now of hearing another ominous ping.
Illustration by Mr Jori Bolton