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  • Sara

Understanding Neurotransmitters and Their Role in Mental Health

Updated: Sep 12, 2022

It can sometimes be difficult to remember that illnesses such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and more are all physiological conditions that we are not able to control on our own. This is what leads to the stigma around mental health because some people have a hard time understanding that it isn’t just a matter of choosing to be happier or telling ourselves to relax – mental illness is a malfunction of our brain and the chemicals involved and it takes a lot of support to combat the effects. One way to help understand that things like depression and anxiety are an actual illness is to dive into the science behind it all.

We have what is called neurotransmitters, which can be thought of as messengers in our bodies that affect our mood, sleep, energy, and more. We need these messengers to maintain a balance and regulate our mood and emotional responses to everyday tasks and challenges. When we have either too much or too little of a neurotransmitter, we can start to notice various symptoms. One of the most common causes of experiencing a imbalance in a neurotransmitter is prolonged stress. Stress can feel unmanageable amid an especially busy schedule, big or small life changes, trauma, financial burdens, or many other situations and events.

Some of the most common neurotransmitters that play a role in our mental health are serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and norepinephrine. Serotonin is known for regulating sleep, mood, appetite, and pain. Dopamine plays a role in motivation, movement, and reward. Norepinephrine is important for our energy levels, attention and focus, dreaming and learning. Finally, GABA helps to calm us down and help deal with fear, anxiety, and stress. Now, imagine that any one of those neurotransmitters is off-balance – you would be feeling all those things that they regulate in a heightened or altered manner. As a result, many depression and anxiety symptoms are partially caused by this imbalance.

The brain tends to rewrite itself over and over again, adjusting to new information. This means, when we do something unhealthy for a long period of time, such as not get enough sleep, eat junk food, choose to isolate, stay sedentary for too long, etc., our brains will process this information and begin to close neural pathways no longer being used while opening up new ones based on the paths repeatedly followed.

What do this mean? The neuroplasticity of the brain means it can be changed and will be changed by the information it stores and manages. This can be both good and bad. In the examples above, it may be less-than-desirable because the brain has closed off unused circuits and added unhealthy ones in response to unhealthy habits. However, this can work both ways, and if healthy habits begin to be followed over and over again, the brain will adjust to these. New habits generally take 21 days to become routine. This is because this is how long it takes the brain to make lasting adjustments.

If you're feeling a sense of hopelessness, like you're unable to control your symptoms, consider that you might be only three weeks away from living a happier, healthier life! All it takes is a plan and some motivation to fulfill it to realign the brain's neurotransmitters. Of course, this doesn't mean that you will magically be able to eliminate any psychotropic medications you may be on altogether overnight, but it can help rebalance dopamine, serotonin and other components of the brain that will naturally help you to feel better over time.

Some activities you can do right now to jumpstart these changes include:

  1. Exercise daily. Even 15 minutes twice a day, whether it be walking, jogging or practicing yoga, can be life-changing.

  2. Follow a well-balanced diet. Eliminating junk food, including regular soda, candy and sugary sweets can make a world of difference.

  3. Schedule social outings. Engaging with those we love affects those feel-good hormones, leading to a boost in mood that can last long after you're back home and once again on your own.

  4. Give back. Volunteering and helping others in need also engages those feel-good parts of the brain. Consider choosing a charity that you'd like to get involved with and donating your time once or twice weekly (or even more often if you want!).

  5. Try something new. New, enjoyable activities give our brains a natural boost. Those that are both fun and challenging, to some extent, take more brainpower and will be more rewarding physical and mentally in the end.

In general, it can be helpful to understand the effect that neurotransmitters play in our mental health because it reminds all of us that mental illness is a biological issue just as much as it is environmental. Many individuals are born with genes that predispose them to imbalances. We shouldn’t place blame or guilt on ourselves or our loved ones. There are ways to combat stressors, correct imbalances and move forward effectively. Know that you are not alone! A therapist can walk beside you on a path to instituting new habits and achieving sustainable recovery.


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