Breathing Principles Series - What are Neurotransmitters?
Before we go into this in more detail, it’s first useful to look in a little more detail at this response and the neurotransmitters that cause it. There are some subtleties here that many people miss and understanding them is one
of the keys to overcoming unwanted stress and anxiety.
Firstly: it’s important to recognize that no two fight or flight responses are the exact same. In other words, stress is a broad term for many different experiences all caused by slightly different ratios of chemicals.
For example, the stress that you feel before an exam is very different from the stress you feel when having a panic attack late at night. Likewise, the stress that you feel in an argument with your partner is very different from
the stress that you feel when you’re going down a mountain quickly.
This is what can sometimes mark the difference between a ‘positive’ stress response and a negative one. And perhaps the most well-publicized example of a ‘positive’ stress response is that of the ‘flow state’.
What is a Flow State?
A flow state is a state of heightened performance without many of the downsides we normally associate with stress. The most common example is in extreme sports where someone who is going down a mountain on a snowboard might find themselves subjectively experience the ‘slowing of time’. They are exhilarated and completely focused on what they’re doing, which allows them to react with incredible reactions and to heighten their performance to incredible degrees.
Some athletes will describe similar experiences when they’re breaking records and giving their best performances on the field, track, or court; suddenly time slows down and they feel completely in-tune with their bodies. Rappers describe something similar, as do writers when they get into ‘the zone’ (which is generally regarded as being a synonym for flow). If you’ve ever been in a conversation and appeared to completely lose track of time for hours while being completely engaged in what you’re saying, then that too is a sign of flow.
So, what’s happening here? Ultimately it comes down to a very similar set of signals from your brain, resulting in a very similar cascade of neurotransmitters but with a few subtle differences.
What you’re telling your brain in this instant is that what you’re doing is incredibly important and possibly even ‘life or death’ (as in the case of extreme sports). At the same time though, you’re also telling your brain that you’re enjoying the experience which slightly changes the chemical profile. Now you likely have an increase in serotonin (the feel-good hormone that numbs pain) and research suggests you also get an increase in anandamide, which is the ‘bliss’ neurotransmitter that also increases creative problem solving. This same neurotransmitter is associated with the use of marijuana! You probably would experience less cortisol meanwhile which is what makes us feel anxious and paranoid. So, you still get the focus and the heightened performance but instead of feeling bad with it, you instead feel right at the top of your game.
Research shows us that this selection of neurotransmitters and hormones leads to something called ‘temporo-hypofrontality’. This is a state where the frontal region of the brain shuts down and the body begins acting more on pure instinct. Ultimately, you become completely focused on the thing you’re doing because you believe it’s important and rewarding and you therefore stop second guessing yourself.
But even within the flow state there are differences. The way you feel when hurtling down a mountain for example is somewhat different from the way you feel when deep in conversation!
Then there are other experiences that are somewhat like fight or flight. A good example is anger! When we’re angry we experience many of the same reactions but probably with an increase in testosterone and perhaps ‘substance-p’ which is a neurotransmitter associated with physical pain.
So, with that in mind, what’s one strategy you can use to right away to start coping with stress better is to change the way you think about your stress. Instead of trying to ‘fight’ your stress and make yourself feel calm (which can often be a fool’s errand), instead consider changing the nature of your stress – try to enjoy the moment more as a challenge and a learning opportunity and you can hopefully trigger a flow state. Or perhaps instead try to get angry about the situation – anger is often viewed as a negative emotion, but it is highly motivating and can be useful for increasing our drive and ability to get what we want.
Don’t get scared – get angry!
How Neurotransmitters Work?
Neurotransmitters are small molecules that live in the brain cells. Specifically, they are found at the end of the axons) which are tails coming off neurons and connecting to the dendrites of other neurons. When a neuron ‘fires’ (called an action potential) energy is transferred down the axon and jumps across the synaptic gap to the dendrites of other neurons causing them to fire once they are overloaded. This is what creates our subjective experience of the world.
At the end of the axons are ‘synaptic knobs’ and at the end of these are neuro vesicles that contain neurotransmitters. When the action potential fires, these are then released along with the charge and attach to receptors in the receiving neurons (known as postsynaptic cells). Only the right neurotransmitters can fit into the appropriate receptors, and they will have slightly different effects depending on where they are in the brain.
Why does all this matter? You’ll find out in the next blog post….