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SEL This Winter Break: Self-Regulating with Neurotransmitters

SEL This Winter Break: Self-Regulating with Neurotransmitters

As we head toward winter, let’s set ourselves and our students up for social-emotional learning (SEL) success with brain- and mood-boosting activities that highlight important connections between the brain and body. When we have a deeper awareness of the cause and effect of neurotransmitters in the brain, we can help regulate our emotions and behavior and improve our overall wellbeing.

In this blog post, we will look at natural ways to stimulate production and release of “feel-good” body chemicals that can improve mood, motivation, productivity, and attention by focusing on three major neurotransmitters—dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin—to understand their roles and the things we can do to receive the benefits of these chemicals when we need them.

Let’s begin in our brain—we have billions of nerve cells in our brains called neurons. They communicate with each other using chemical messengers called neurotransmitters that regulate mood, motivation, cravings, energy, and sleep, and they control your ability to concentrate, remember, handle stress, and feel happiness and pleasure.

Dopamine

Dopamine is a major neurotransmitter and a key ingredient in motivation, productivity, and focus. It helps you enjoy life and plays an important role in attention, memory, mood, learning, sleep, movement, and anticipatory pleasure. It enables you to plan ahead and resist impulses so that you can achieve your goals. Dopamine oversees your pleasure-reward system and allows you to experience feelings of enjoyment and bliss. While dopamine, doesn’t produce feelings of pleasure, it reinforces them when it connects them with associated behaviors. It is released when your needs are about to be met, and it delivers a feeling of satisfaction when you’ve accomplished your goals. If you are feeling lethargic or apathetic, choose a dopamine-enhancing activity to help.

Activities to Increase Dopamine Levels

  • Get moving: Physical exercise stimulates dopamine production. Activities can be gentle like a walk or tai chi, or more strenuous like running or playing soccer. All forms of exercise are beneficial.
     
  • Get enough sleep: Lack of sleep has been shown to reduce concentrations of neurotransmitters, including dopamine, and their receptors. Getting adequate hours of sleep per night for your age range will leave you ready for optimal performance mentally and physically.
     
  • Get outside: Sunlight increases the number of dopamine receptors and creates vitamin D, which activates the genes that release dopamine.
     
  • Listen to or create music: Listening to music, playing or creating music, or even anticipating listening to music that you enjoy increases dopamine production.
     
Serotonin

Serotonin is the main neurotransmitter associated with feelings of happiness, relaxation, and self-confidence. It controls mood, sleep, memory, and appetite, and it is important in creating and maintaining a positive mood. Only 2 percent of serotonin is located in the brain, with 95 percent created in the intestines, making it important to choose serotonin-promoting foods, as well as activities. If you are feeling anxious, choose a serotonin-increasing activity to help.

Activities to Increase Serotonin Levels

  • Get outside: Sunlight increases serotonin levels. As the days shorten in the winter, make time to get out in the daylight to combat lower levels of serotonin that occur with less light exposure.
     
  • Get moving: Physical exercise also stimulates serotonin production, leaving your mood elevated. When you pedal your bicycle or lift weights, your body releases more tryptophan, the amino acid your brain uses to make serotonin.
     
  • Get social: Spending time with friends and people you enjoy increases serotonin levels in the brain.
     
Oxytocin

Oxytocin is a hormone that also acts as a neurotransmitter and is sometimes known as the "love hormone" because it is released through physical touch or social bonding. It acts as a “social emotion amplifier” and connects areas in the brain that are involved in processing social information, helping link those areas to the brain’s reward system. It enhances the pleasure of social interactions by stimulating the production of anandamide, a neurotransmitter reinforces the pleasure of socialization. Oxytocin is considered beneficial to mental health due to its prosocial benefits and its ability to reduce stress and anxiety and to increase trust and empathy.

Activities to Increase Oxytocin Levels

  • Get physical: The best way to increase oxytocin naturally is through interpersonal touch. This could be holding hands; laughing; snuggling; cuddling; or hugging with friends, family, or pets. Even a handshake, high five, or eye contact can activate oxytocin release.
     
  • Get outside: Enjoy the sun. Hiking, walking in the woods, and listening to the sounds of nature (such as the chirping of birds, the croaking of frogs, and the swashing of sea waves) correlate to higher levels of oxytocin.
     
  • Sing and listen to music: Both singing and listening to music increase oxytocin levels, and playing music or singing with other people increases oxytocin even more.

We often look for the deeper meaning behind our low moods or lack of motivation, and many times, the deeper reasons are certainly there. Another perspective is that our moods could be affected by something as simple and complex as neurotransmitters. Knowing this, we can proactively help ourselves maintain physical and mental health by checking in with our body and brain and using our knowledge to aid in regulating our wellbeing.

As the calendar year and first semester of the school year draw to a close, we will naturally review, reflect, and plan forward. Include your physical and mental health in your reflections and evaluations this winter break—fine tune your inner technology to build a stronger, more informed relationship with your physical biology and to transition into the new year healthy, empowered, and self-aware.

To learn more about supporting your students and educators with SEL curriculum and assessment, visit BASE Education and our BASE Education Getting Started Resources page.

Sian.Reilly@Edmentum.com's picture
Sian Reilly

Sian joined Edmentum in 2019 and serves as a Marketing Specialist. A former teacher and administrator, Sian believes quality SEL education paired with rigorous, individualized curriculum can powerfully transform students, campuses, and communities. Sian is passionate about connecting educators with content to meet their specific needs in an ever-evolving education environment.