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Heading into winter/summer/holidays – don’t lose your balance

Heading into winter/summer/holidays – don’t lose your balance

We’re heading into winter in the northern hemisphere, summer vacation in the southern hemisphere, end of year holidays – Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s – around the globe, when people can experience the joy of sharing festivities with loved ones, sometimes the heartbreak of distance or rupture from loved ones.

And, as always in the human experience, these are the best of times and the worst of times. (Deep bows to Charles Dickens.) Whatever our personal moments of joy, sorrow, delight, disgruntlement in this transitional seasonal time of year, we are experiencing them in the context of overwhelming difficulties, even disasters, for many of our fellow beings.

Here’s the link to an inspiring little video (short! 3.5 minutes) about oxytocin – the neurochemical of intimacy and social bonding that helps us keep our hearts open in moments either happy/hopeful or distressing. (The NPR video playfully yet accurately demonstrates the interactions of oxytocin with norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin – all described below – too.)

As we navigate the flurry of celebrations-gatherings with friends/family-travel (or the sorrow of not) it can be helpful to pay attention to our levels of “noroxydopatonin,” the skillful balancing of the naturally occurring neurochemical soup – norepinephrine, oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin – that keeps us on an even keel through the best of times, the worst of times.

Norepinephrine – part of the same catecholamine family as adrenaline, norepinephrine mobilizes the brain and body for action.  That could be the fight-flight part of the stress response. Yet norepinephrine also helps us focus our attention, increase our alertness, and enhance our memory; handy for navigating the many choices we need to make in our every day.

Oxytocin – the neurotransmitter of bonding and belonging, the brain’s natural (and immediate) antidote to norepinephrine. Known as the hormone that leads to “tend and befriend,” or “calm and connect,” oxytocin is what helps us settle into the comfort and coziness of long-term social/friendship/family bonds.

Dopamine – the neurotransmitter of satisfaction and reward, also released in the brain in anticipation of reward.   What motivates us to cook a home-made meal for a group of 12 or work extra hard for our favorite political candidate or social justice cause.

Serotonin – the neurotransmitter of well-being, that helps us return to and maintain a stable sense of contentment and ease.

All of these neurotransmitters occur naturally in every human brain and interact constantly, influencing our moods and overall sense of well-being moment to moment.

You can google the use of medications and supplements to increase norepinephrine to recover from low blood pressure, or serotonin to recover from low mood – depression. We can help activate the release each of these neurotransmitters when we practice basic self-care: exercise, nutrition, sleep, massage, as well as the larger practices of meditation, yoga, cordial to resonant interactions with others.

In this post, I’m focusing on paying mindful attention to the balance of these neurotransmitters in our brains, so that we can be resilient as we enjoy the comfort and happiness of the good times of this season and bring compassion to the heartaches, distresses, and overwhelm that may be interwoven throughout this season.

NOREPINEPHRINE: 

Monitor your inner stress response to outer stressful events – the car won’t start; you forgot the password to your bank account; the evening news triggered another round of annoyance/despair.

When you notice yourself becoming anxious, agitated, restless, or just wanting to crawl under the covers under after the new year:

Activate the oxytocin:

* put your hand on your heart and breathe deeply with compassion for even having this reaction

* reach out to a friend and commiserate

* enjoy sexual playfulness with a partner

* spend more time in meaningful social interactions (watch the news together!)

Activate the dopamine:

* channel any nervous energy into action – resolving whatever problems you can, helping someone else solve their problems if you can

Activate the serotonin:

* recall moments of kindness or gratitude you experienced earlier today, this week, back in the third grade, not as a bypass but as a neurochemically legitimate counter-balance to the hard moments.

OXYTOCIN

Monitor your needs for connection, the deepest needs we human beings have. At the first signs of loneliness or feeling bereft:

Active the norepinephrine:

* crank up your courage to take action,

*reach out to a friend

* join a local choir or bowling league

* volunteer to be a big sister or big brother to someone lonelier than you

Activate the dopamine:

* anticipate the joy/reward you will feel when you do connect with friends

* create the joy/reward of providing good company to someone convalescing from an injury or illness

Activate the serotonin:

* identify three different moments when you have felt held and comforted by others, or when you have held and comforted others; evoke the felt sense of those memories and savor each one

DOPAMINE

Monitor whether any levels of satisfaction and joy are tipping into wanting or craving – wanting a better gadget, a longer grander vacation.  (Alas, dopamine is the neurotransmitter that fuels all addictions – substances, activities, even the over-use of our digital devices.)

Activate the norepinephrine:

* Exercise, move your body mindfully and vigorously, enjoy the “athlete’s high”

* Channel the energy into the satisfaction of accomplishing something worthy for a worthy cause

Activate the oxytocin:

* Our deepest needs are for love and connection.  Play with a puppy, hug a child, surprise a special friend with a special treat

Activate the serotonin:

* Take in the good of what you already have and have already accomplished.  S-a-v-o-r a good laugh with a friend, a good meal with your neighbors, a last moment win by your favorite team. Linger and absorb the good feeling of feeling good.

Throughout the season, mindfully monitor the flow of all of your states of inner being and pro-actively regain your balance when needed.

As with all practices for strengthening resilience, little and often is best.  Check in with yourself moment by moment. And navigate the ups and downs of this season – any season – one mindful moment at a time, one practice at a time. Enjoy your growing capacities to do so.

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