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Endorphins - the hormone of relief

Behind every beautiful thing, there's some kind of pain.” - Bob Dylan

Thank you for joining me for blog 26 highlighting decision-making and the brain. This is my public exploration of what drives decision-making and how we can use that information to make better decisions, resulting in better outcomes.

Today's blog continues the series on reward chemicals or so called 'happy hormones' and will cover endorphins today. I have been blown away by researching endorphins, and thought it would be mostly about runner's high, but there is so much to endorphins including a very dark side. As decision-makers we should be aware of negative spirals and virtuous circles as they are often important conditions for both negative and positive compounding.

What are Endorphins?

Endorphins are nature’s pain relief. I have experienced endorphins when injuring my left ankle playing 5-a-side football. I could drive home perfectly well but by the time I arrived home, I could feel the pain much more keenly, and within half an hour I was feeling excruciating pain.

Endorphins provide us with an evolutionary advantage. For example, if we have injured our leg they help us keep moving to safety whilst being pursued by a threatening person or animal. Endorphins are automatically released when we feel pain, they mask the pain by dulling our pain receptors and amplifying our pleasure receptors. Importantly, the impacts are temporary as pain helps us identify injured areas of the body and helps us learn what we should or should not do (e.g. jump from too high up).

A side effect of a large endorphin release is euphoria or oblivion. This feeling is sought after as it is a pleasant feeling. Other than by getting injured, the most well-known way of experiencing endorphins is by exercise that pushes you past your capacity, known as ‘runner’s high’ - but that is only the start of it.

Laughing and crying

Endorphins are also released when we laugh. The release is from internal convulsions that stimulate endorphins and the impact of the high can be exacerbated by relief from a very socially risky joke. It is for this reason that ‘edgy’ comics can be viewed as funnier. At the other end of the emotional spectrum endorphins are also released by crying, again the internal convulsions stimulate endorphins. It now makes more sense to me why my better half would gladly put herself through a melodramatic tear-jerker.

Teenage angst

Endorphins seems to have addictive features that send many vulnerable people into a negative spiral. Whilst we have evolved to mask physical pain with endorphins, today’s world is safer from physical danger but more likely that we feel social pain through feelings of insecurity, inadequacy or mistrust. It appears that an endorphin rush can be used to help very temporarily dull the social pain we might feel. Whilst I have much more research to do on this area, the idea that people might self-harm e.g. cut themselves to achieve an endorphin high seems much more understandable.

Endorphins are also released on fasting which is nature’s way of motivating us to carry on foraging in lean times. Vomiting (a set of internal convulsions) also leads to a release of endorphins. Although there is much work to do here this release might be the root of some common eating disorders.

These produce negative spirals as once the endorphin high goes away, reality sinks in, and perhaps another escape is the desired reaction. One explanation for teenagers being particularly susceptible to these urges are that their ‘higher brain’ which helps moderates emotional responses is still developing.

Synthetic endorphins

Opium and its derivatives (opioids) mimic the mechanics of endorphins and due to the large doses can cause a high magnitudes bigger than can be achieved naturally. Opium has been used to treat pain and was first recorded in Mesopotamia 5000 years ago. More recently 500 years ago it was used for intoxication and as an aphrodisiac.

Morphine (named after Morpheus the Roman god of dreams) was discovered in 1803 as an effective reliever of pain. The addictive qualities of opioids have been known for a while Heroin, morphine or the prescription opioids have shown themselves to be very addictive. As we have has seen with other happy hormones, once you experience an unnatural amount of it you seek to achieve that high again but cannot achieve it through natural means. Next time you need more of it, as you have decreased your sensitivity to it.

Good ways to get endorphins going

1) Laugh: Meet with a funny friend, go to a comedy club or watch something funny

2) Cross-training: Rather than try and push yourself too hard doing your usual training activity you can try something that uses different muscles. Your muscles will not be suited to the activity and hence you can stretch yourself that way

3) Stretch: Whether yoga, tai-chi or qi gong, the stretching and slow movement of the muscles will respond by releasing endorphins

4) Music and dance: it turns out that these two lift your mood via endorphins too

Some other endorphin releasers: Acupuncture and going outside to get ultraviolet light exposure.

So what?

How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week:

1) Endorphins are natures way of masking pain to help you get to safety after getting injured

2) An endorphin high can be addictive, which might cause people to try and release endorphins through self-harm or abuse opioids. When feeling low we may be susceptible to making bad decisions and achieving an endorphin high.

3) Laughing, cross-training, stretching and dancing are great ways to get endorphins.

Thank you for joining. Next week we will cover 'Cortisol - the stress hormone'.


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