A Quick Primer on Neurotransmitters
Using mindfulness and CBT, it’s possible for us to change the way we react to stressful events and to essentially reprogram our stress response. Likewise, we can use this to improve our happiness, to get to sleep more easily and much more.
But when we do all this, what we’re really doing is affecting the chemistry of our brains. We’re changing the neurochemicals in our brain and that in turn is changing the way we feel and even the way we perform. This is why it can be a good idea to learn more about what neurotransmitters really are and how they work. Once you do that, you’ll have more idea of what it is you’re actually doing to change your brain functions and in turn, this will make you more effective at it.
What Are Neurotransmitters?
Your brain is made up of a large network of different cells called neurons. This network is sometimes called your ‘connectome’ and essentially, each of these cells represents a thought, an idea, a memory or a sensation.
As we think or experience the world around us, these cells ‘fire’ by releasing an electrical signal like a circuit. That signal travels over the synapses – the gaps between brain cells – and this then allows them to create the rich experiences that we’re familiar with in a kind of cascade.
In terms of the way that a cell fires, it can either be ‘on or off’. That is to say that there aren’t ‘levels’ of firing. After a certain amount of excitation, a cell fires and then stops firing.
But that’s not to say that the signal is entirely binary. Because at the same time, the brain also releases chemicals called neurotransmitters which color various aspects of the signal. This can alter how likely it is for the cell to fire again, it can strengthen the connection between two cells, or it make us feel happy or sad about that thing.
Your Brain Chemistry
Your brain is filled with neurotransmitters which affect receptors on brain cells and have a short lifespan. At the same time, hormones like testosterone and cortisol can also affect the brain in a similar way acting like secondary neurotransmitters.
These hormones and neurotransmitters are moderated partly by our thoughts. If we change which cells fire, we change which hormones and neurotransmitters get released.
But it’s much more complex than this. For starters, our hormones and neurotransmitters are tied closely to our lifestyles and various biological factors. When we’re hungry for instance, low blood sugar encourages the release of cortisol – the stress hormone. This in turn encourages the release of ghrelin, the hunger hormone.
When we have high blood sugar though, we release insulin and this increases the tryptophan in the brain. That tryptophan is converted to serotonin, making us feel good, and this is later converted into melatonin – the sleep hormone.
In short, our physical health is directly linked to our mental state and vice versa, putting us firmly at the mercy of our biology. But that said, using mindfulness, it is possible to regain control over this situation and to decide exactly how we want to feel and when.