Why is it that sometimes we wake up ready to conquer the day and others ready to crawl back under the covers and do nothing? Our moods vary frequently, some more than others, and we are constantly seeing the world through the lens of how we feel on the inside.
What is the actual science behind our mood? While life events play a significant role, other factors like stressors, hormones, and neurotransmitters prompt an emotional response as well. Our brain chemistry influences more than we often give it credit for, leaving us at the will of our genetic makeup but not excusing us from healthy decision-making where we are capable.
The section of our brain that controls our mood is at the very center of all the activity, and it’s called our limbic system. This system is a mosaic of neurons, housing our emotional center and managing our mood. The two most notorious parts of our brain that work with the limbic system are the hippocampus and amygdala. Let’s quickly define their purposes:
Hippocampus: consolidates information from short-term memory to long-term memory and enables navigation in spatial memory. This part of the brain is vital for learning because it is the primary storage container for our memories and also serves as the holder of sensory information like taste and smell (hint: that’s why Northern Fir Beard Oil’s pine scent always brings up fresh, forest-y memories).
Amygdala: responsible for emotions (especially fear), survival instincts, and memory. This part of our brain is the reason we are afraid of things outside of our control. It also guides us in reacting to certain stimuli that we see as potentially threatening or dangerous.
Let’s jump back into how these parts of our brain impact our moods. Smells are the most effective at recalling information from our long-term memories, which is why certain scents remind us of people, places, and moments in time. Think for example the smell of our grandmother’s homemade pot pie and how it gives us feelings of warmth, homeliness, and family. We may remember our grandmother in that moment and think of all the other ways she cared for us, triggering a sense of nostalgia and boosting our mood.
Complementary to the hippocampus housing our sensory control, the amygdala links our emotions and gauges how those memories of our grandmother are stored. Experiences that carry strong emotions are more easily recalled than those with little emotion involved. Take for example our workday. We go through eight hours of menial tasks on a daily basis, which can be difficult to recall on a dime; but, the second our boss gives a performance review and mentions how awesome of a job we did conducting a training, the next time we give a training, we may experience excitement and confidence at the task. This is our amygdala working full force because that moment was colored with powerful emotions of pride and a sense of accomplishment.
Between the neurotransmitter Serotonin and the hormones Cortisol and Oxytocin, our mood has more contributing factors than just the formerly mentioned parts of our brain. Serotonin is the master mood regulator, working with receptors in our brain to elicit feelings of joy and well-being. When our body has a healthy dose of serotonin, we feel alert and content with our circumstances. Alternatively, with low amounts, we will feel sad, tired, and lazy. Eat more foods with tryptophan and exercise regularly to increase serotonin in your brain and reduce stress.
Cortisol affects mood by way of stress - both the good and bad types. Low levels of cortisol equal a better mood. Exercise, again, gives our bodies an outlet for stress, along with connection and socializing with loved ones.
Oxytocin is the “love” hormone, and is a big game player in our mood. This hormone helps us form attachments to friends, family, and even that cute dog of ours, and we all know dogs help boost moods, so now we know why. Certain activities like singing, hugging, intimacy, a hanging out with friends help increase oxytocin, relaxing us and improving our mood.
We have quite a bit going on in these brains of ours. By exercising, staying aware of how our moods are regulated, meditating, dietary thoughtfulness, and plenty of laughter, we can find a balance between our biochemistry and circumstances that give more control over our daily outlook.
What are some of your favorite mood-boosting activities? Let us know in the comments below!