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What a Let-Down!

Here's why you feel threatened when your happy chemicals dip.

Your brain evolved to look for problems.

You get a break while your happy chemicals are surging, but when the surge ends your brain goes back to looking for problems. For example, the first bite of an ice cream cone feels fabulous. When you eat the last delicious bite, there's a sudden sense of loss. You haven't really lost anything, but the bad feeling tells your brain that something is wrong. It responds by looking for evidence of what's wrong. It find evidence when it looks, alas. By understanding your natural let-down feelings, you can learn to accept them instead of rushing to negative thoughts. You can build neural pathways that focus on possibilities instead of on threats.

Here's a personal example. Some mornings I go to my computer and find a clever message from a PT reader or one of my kids. My brain learned to expect a surge of happy chemicals when I go to my computer. But often there are no happy tidings waiting for me. What a let down! Is something wrong? Should I "fix it"? Four possible answers to this question are presented at the end of this post. First, let's look closer at the different happy chemicals and the let-down feelings common to each one.

The Dopamine Let-down: After you've reached a big goal.
The day after a race or any other significant accomplishment, you often feel bad. If you look for a reason, you might decide that your performance was lacking in some way. Or that the goal you worked toward was somehow ill-chosen or the community unappreciative. If you knew that your dopamine spiked from the big event, and now it's returning to normal, you might not burden yourself with these negative thoughts. You'd still feel bad for a bit, because normal is less exciting than a dopamine spike. By accepting the bad feelings, you return to the normalcy that makes dopamine spikes possible when you really need them.

The Serotonin Let-down: I'm not the big-shot around here anymore.You used to be the president of the PTA, and people sought you out when you walked into meetings. Now you're hardly noticed. PTA meetings used to trigger your serotonin. Now they're a let-down. It feels like something is wrong with the world. The disappointment is real, but you risk giving it global proportions unless you understand its true cause.

The Endorphin Let-down: Now it really hurts.
Imagine twisting your ankle during an exciting tennis match. You hardly notice because your body releases endorphins when it's injured. That masks pain for a few minutes while you do what it takes to meet your survival needs (which includes scoring in tennis). Once the endorphins wear off, you're in serious pain. You wonder why, since you felt fine after you twisted the ankle. You start having painful thoughts about the game and everything that went wrong in it. You'd be better off if you knew it was an endorphin let-down.

The Oxytocin Let-down: I wish I knew who I could trust. You're working with a group that really synchs, and it feels great. But something changes, and now some of your mates seem incompetent while others seem out for themselves. You feel you can't trust them anymore, but without trust, the work feels awful. What a let-down!

Your brain chemicals are controlled by the mammalian part of your brain. Your mammal brain does not tell your cortex why it is turning these chemicals on and off. Your neocortex has surprisingly little inside information. It is literally not on speaking terms with the primitive limbic system because that system is not capable of using words or abstractions. It just releases happy chemicals when something looks good for survival, and unhappy chemicals when something looks bad for survival. Survival means different things to your cortex and your limbic system because your cortex learns from experience while your limbic system evolved to meet the needs of your ancestors.

Your cortex only learns from new experience when it's relevant to survival. Otherwise, it relies on the circuits built from old experience. That's why we tend to repeat behaviors that aren't good for us. A response to frustration that worked long ago got wired into your brain and now each frustration triggers that behavior. You can build new pathways to support new responses to disappointment. But it takes a huge effort to build a new circuit and we need awareness of our circuits before we invest that effort.

So what should I do when I don't find a happy boost when I check my computer?
a.) Check the refrigerator. Then re-check computer. Repeat.
b.) Try to control the world by sending out messages until I'm exhausted.
c.) Generate theories about my failure, and gather evidence to support those theories.
d.) Accept the disappointment as one of the ups and downs that comprise a human life, and focus on do-able steps toward my long-term well-being.

My book Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin and Endorphin shows how you can re-wire your brain to have more ups and fewer downs. To go beyond that, my new book The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns By Changing Your Brain Chemistry explains why this brain we've inherited tends to go negative. You can PARE your negativity by building your sense of Personal Agency, and Realistic Expectations. But we do well to remember that our happy chemicals are not there to surge all the time. They are there to motivate us to do things that promote our survival.

More from Loretta G. Breuning Ph.D.
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