RUN, FORREST, RUN!
I’m on holiday in the beautiful Algarve in Portugal but neither the scenery not the break from routine have stopped me waking up this morning feeling terrible. I moped around the holiday apartment, escaping into the bedroom a few times just to disconnect from others and be on my own. When I get in a mood like this every ounce of my being wants to shut off from the world, hide from my responsibilities and metaphorically bury my head in the sand. Unable to talk myself out of my mood I knew I had to do something proactive if I wanted to change my situation. So I put on my Nikes and bracing the scorching weather and mid-day sun, I went for a run.
My dopamine levels were clearly low. That’s the hormone produced in our brains which acts as a neurotransmitter controlling mood, often known as the ‘feel-good factor’. Whilst there is no reliable way to directly measure the levels in a person’s brain, there are some indirect ways, such as observing when you feel completely unmotivated, physically tired, and unfocussed. After the run I hardly recognised the morning slouch. It was if I had had a complete re-set and I was a different person. It is hard to overstate how much dopamine levels shape my perception of life, my emotions, and how capable I perceive myself to be.
Dopamine levels in the brain and body have been proven to be closely linked to our sense of motivation. They can also enhance our depth of focus and lower our threshold for taking action toward specific goals. We know that taking certain actions can change the way the brain is operating and because of this there is no excuse for not giving yourself the best chance every day to have the best day possible or at least stack the deck in your favour.
Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman, says there is a chain of operations in our nervous system, which goes something like this – Sensation – Perception – Feeling – Thought – Action.
And when we want to change our internal state—say, to feel better or more motivated—most people try to “think positively” or change their outlook, but as Huberman says, “It’s hard to control the mind with the mind…”
Whereas behaviours are tangible and more concrete, thoughts and feelings are mysterious and slippery—we can end up in a wrestling match that’s impossible to win. So, to make positive shifts across that entire chain, we can run it backwards, beginning with action. Good actions give us good sensations which interrupt the negative pattern and replace it with a positive one.
This ties into a bigger point of how we face our anxieties. Most of us go into “false survival mode” and either run away, freeze or face the threat and move forward. Sometimes we do a combination of two or three of these. When we choose solely to act—to face the discomfort without stress or anxiety but with an attitude of problem-solving—not only do we get a dopamine hit for doing so, which propels further action, we condition ourselves to make that same choice in the future.
As much as the self-help world loves affirmations – looking in the mirror and saying: ‘I’m good enough, I’m lovable, I’m valuable’, for example – direct, physical action is a more reliable, profound state changer than positive thinking. If we act in a way that someone who feels that they are good enough, lovable, or valuable would do, that will wire in that belief much more powerfully. Because when it comes to shifting our limiting beliefs, external proof is often required; putting ourselves in situations that gently challenge that belief and prove it wrong, prove we’ll be okay, if not better than we expected.
So, if you’re looking for clear actions you can take to create more confidence, more motivation, more growth, or a better mood, here’s a concrete practice to put this into action. Ask yourself the following question: What am I avoiding? This could be conversations, tasks, projects that are important to you, big life changes, or less-than-fun pieces of a goal. Write them down. Then start tackling those items right away. And as you cross each item off the list, notice the shift in your mood and lightness in your body…that’s what it feels like to choose self-expression and success over fear. It is how someone with inner worth and value acts and it can be as simple as going for a run.