Posts Tagged ‘endorphins’

I get asked this all the time:  “What if it’s only chemical?”

Good question.  Why talk to a therapist if you can take a pill and be done with it?

Freud was intrigued by the possibility.  According to Peter Gay, in Freud’s late work, “Outline of Psychoanalysis:”

“[he] speculated that the time might come when chemical substances would alter balances in the mind and thus make psychoanalytic therapy, now the best available treatment for neuroses, quite obsolete.”

It’s appealing to treat mental illness as a chemical problem because chemistry seems clean and precise.  The fundamental functioning of the brain is both chemical and electrical, based on the difference in potentiality between sodium and potassium.  No problem.  You identify an imbalance, add ingredients, stir, and restore order.

But there is a problem.  The brain is also a ball of flesh, soaking in countless compounds we scarcely comprehend.

Injecting a drug – one more chemical – into your bloodstream is a primitive way to fine-tune complex chemistry.

That’s why psychiatric drugs are most effective when blunt, simple results are called for.  They can slow you down.  They can speed you up.  They can numb you or narrow your emotional bandwidth.  If you are bi-polar, they may help stabilize your emotional swings.  If you are psychotic, they may bring you back to reality, or at least closer to it.

For subtler changes in brain chemistry, talk therapy – or maybe talk therapy in tandem with a drug treatment component – produces better results.

How could talking in a therapist’s office affect the chemistry of the brain?

Your emotions are chemicals.  When you feel angry, your amygdala, a region in the center of your brain, releases a chemical signal.  That chemical – or series of chemicals, is what you experience as “anger.”  Joy, fear, sadness – all the emotions you feel as fundamental responses to the world around you – are chemicals.

Your thoughts are also chemicals.  When you admire a sunset, you are releasing chemicals which trigger electrical impulses that race through the circuitry of your brain.

Your thoughts affect your emotions.  So if I can affect  your thoughts, I can affect the chemicals triggering your feelings.

The brain is extremely mutable – neural pathways can be rerouted.  If I can make you aware of your thoughts and feelings, I can reroute the neurons in your brain, so different chemicals are released.

This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.  Here’s an example:  If you are depressed and I tell you to go for a run because it will cheer you up, I’m not merely nagging.  Aerobic exercise releases endorphins in your brain.  These chemicals cheer you up, relieving depression.

In the process, you will also create a memory – a piece of stored chemical information – that links depression with going for a run and feeling better.  A faint, newly formed neural link, and a piece of memory supporting that link, have been created.

Here’s another example:  if you are denying your anger – the typical pattern that creates depression – and I arrange during a session of psychotherapy for you to address your father, or your mother, or your boss or your girlfriend, and you feel anger well up and put that anger into words, saying what you’ve kept silent for years…that’s going to have effects on the chemistry of your brain.

When you get the words out, and feel your buried anger, new pathways will form between the ancient regions governing emotion in the center of the brain and more recently evolved cognition areas in the outer cortex.

New thoughts circulate new chemicals, create new memories, and effectively rewire the way you think.

You leave my office realizing you were angrier than you thought, and knowing it felt good to get it out.  You experience a lightening of mood.  Your girlfriend, when you get home, senses that you are less defended – your resistances are down.  This alters her behavior towards you, and she starts to open up to you emotionally to a new degree.  You begin questioning your old responses to her, and your old ways of doing things in general.

Your brain is flooded with new chemicals, and new pathways have been formed, that might, with further talk therapy, begin to replace old ones.

Subtle changes have been made to the chemistry of your brain – to who you are, how you think, and how you behave with others.

That’s what psychotherapy is all about:

Better living through chemistry.


If you enjoyed this post, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book.


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The best self-help book in the world would be titled “Feel Better – Right Now!”

Here’s what it would say.

First, exercise.

Second, get a pet.

And here’s why the People’s Therapist is always beating these two drums, and will keep beating them for all eternity.

Exercise, especially cardio exercise, releases natural anti-depressants into your body:  endorphins.

Endorphins are terrific.  Best drugs ever.  If you are feeling down, blue, under the weather and terrible – hit the stairmaster for 30 minutes and build up a good sweat.

I defy you to say you don’t feel better.

With endorphins, you always get the right dose, it always works, and there are no side effects.  If you get addicted to endorphins, well, so you might end up hitting the gym a lot.  Not a major downside.

(I won’t bother mentioning that exercise with make you look better and live longer, too.  Or that you should eat right as a part of an exercise program – and consult your doctor before doing strenuous exercise.  Too obvious.)

The People’s Therapist works out like crazy and he loves it.  The trick is to think of a regular fitness regiment as required maintenance – like flossing your teeth.  You just do it, because not doing it would be gross.  So do it.

Try yoga, or jogging, or swimming, or weight-lifting or martial arts or tai-chi or whatever floats your boat.  But get active.

Hey…you wanted to feel better RIGHT NOW, right?

NUMBER TWO:  get a pet.

Here’s why:

People have children for some strange reasons.  They don’t say as much – most people will look at you funny if you even ask them why they have children.

But in reality, for the most part, they have children to satisfy their own unconscious needs.

Maybe they want to mold a young person’s beliefs and values.

Maybe they want to bring someone into the world  who will love them completely.

Maybe they want to bring someone into the world whom they can love completely.

Maybe they want someone who will always be there for them.

Maybe they want someone they can always be there for.

Unfortunately, real, human children don’t work so well for these purposes.  They are not moldable, at least not after the first few years. Real, human children grow up into adolescents and adults, who can decide what they think, and who they will love, and whose love they chose to accept and whether it feels suffocating or controlling to them.  They are often very different from their parents – they might want to vote Republican, or be lesbian – and that can result in friction.  Real, human children can be a challenge.

But with a kitty or a puppy or a little bunny rabbit – NO PROBLEM!

Pets are fantasy children.  It’s no wonder we call them “baby” and “boo-boo” and talk to them in high squeaky voices.  They accept our love without complaint, and they return it in a flood of adoration.  They are moldable, and utterly helpless – but at the same time, much lower maintenance than real children.

Arguable, animal pets are a lot less interesting than real children, but that’s the point.  Animal pets let us regress into children ourselves in a harmless, healthy manner.  We can play at being their mommies and daddies, but it’s only play – the way children play with their dolls.

Pets let us pretend the world is a lot simpler than it really is, because an animal’s world is pretty simple, and they share that simplicity with us.

Every study ever done on the subject produces the same results:  pets make us happy.

IN CONCLUSION…I’m not saying working out or playing with your puppy is going to replace the long-term benefits of psychotherapy.

But a half hour on the treadmill – or staring contentedly at your gold fish – might just make you FEEL BETTER RIGHT NOW!!!

It couldn’t hurt.

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