Emotions are very complex and have different meanings to different people, but essentially, emotions are a conscious experience that are categorized by states of mind, external and internal reactions, and expressions.
There are many different emotions, including affection, anger, angst, anguish, annoyance, anxiety, apathy, arousal, awe, boredom, confidence, contempt, contentment, courage, curiosity, depression, desire, despair, disappointment, disgust, distrust, dread, ecstasy, embarrassment, envy, euphoria, excitement, fear, frustration, gratitude, grief, guilt, happiness, hatred, hope, horror, hostility, hurt, hysteria, indifference, interest, jealousy, joy, loathing, loneliness, love, lust, outrage, panic, passion, pity, pleasure, pride, rage, regret, relief, remorse, sadness, satisfaction, self-confidence, shame, shock, shyness, sorrow, suffering, surprise, terror, trust, wonder, worry, zeal, and zest.
Emotions are not really made out of anything, but how we feel emotions can be described. Emotions come from the arousal of the nervous system. Millions of chemical reactions take place in the brain at any given time. Chemical reactions occur because of synapses. Synapses are parts of the nervous system, and it is through these that neurons are able to transmit messages using neurotransmitters.
Emotions are typically measured in physiological responses, such as a pounding heart, sweating, blood rushing to the face, and the release of adrenaline. Expression is also a major part of emotions. Expression is associated with parts of the nervous system such as the motor cortex, limbic system, and the brain stem. The parts of the nervous system that affect emotion the most are the frontal lobes and the amygdala. The frontal cortex is usually associated with feelings of happiness and pleasure. The amygdala is usually associated with feelings of anger, fear, and sadness.
We experience a variety of emotions throughout the day. Mostly, these emotions are transient in nature. But, when these emotions become intensely negative or are unremitting they can dramatically affect our biochemistry and behaviour.Certain brain areas and the presence of levels of different chemicals in your brain controls emotions. For example, if we are in danger, our brain releases stress hormones that can initiate fight or flight reactions by flooding certain regions with the neurotransmitter epinephrine (adrenaline). When the danger subsides, our brain inhibits the stress response by sending out a calming signal in the form of chemicals.
Hormones and chemicals keep the body working normally. Listed are a few of them and how their balance affect the way our moods, emotions and stresses are triggered.
- Oestrogen – Female Reproduction and Positive Mood Hormone
Oestrogen, the primary sex hormone of women is released from Ovaries. Effect of oestrogen on emotions is due to its ability to increase serotonin and endorphins; chemicals associated with positive mood states. There are three major endogenous oestrogensin females that have estrogenic hormonal activity: oestrone, estradiol and estriol. The oestrone steroid is the most potent and prevalent of these.
Oestrogen is also the hormone linked to mood disruptions in women, as seen in premenstrual syndrome, premenstrual dysphoric disorder and postpartum depression.Low oestrogen levels are associated with depression, anxiety and mood swings. However, high oestrogen levels can also wreak havoc with our system. So a right biochemical balance is essential for the well-functioning steroid hormones system.Oestrogen helps in maintaining levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine by decreasing level of monoamine oxidase- the enzyme responsible for their deactivation.
- Progesterone – Female Ovulation and Calming Hormone
Progesterone is a female sex hormone produced by a temporary gland within the ovaries called corpus luteum and plays a key role in reproduction. Our brain is highly responsive to progesterone concentrations. Insomnia, anxiety and migraine are commonly seen with imbalance of oestrogen and progesterone.Progesterone counterbalances the action of oestrogen. While oestrogen has an excitatory effect on brain, progesterone has calming effect. Studies have shown that progesterone shows anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects by activating gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors in the brain. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that assists in relaxation and sleep.
- Dopamine – Motivation and Reward Chemical
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, released by hypothalamus and is involved in focus, attention, memory, drive, muscle control and ovulation. It is associated with alertness, memory, cognition, happiness and vigilance. Low levels of dopamine in the body can result in depression, impulsivity, mood swings, attention deficit, cognitive issues, compulsive behaviour, cravings, apathy and loss of satisfaction in life activities. It inhibits rational thinking as seen in schizophrenia.
Dopamine is important in brain’s reward system and elevations in its level can lead to addictive behaviour, suspicious personality and possible paranoia.
There are no food sources that can provide dopamine directly, but consider taking foods rich in tyrosine and phenylalanine: the amino acids required to manufacture dopamine. Both of these amino acids are seen in protein rich foods like turkey, chicken, milk, cheese and eggs.
- Serotonin – Happiness Hormone
It regulates wide range of physiological and biological functions including mood, arousal, aggression, thinking abilities and memory.Right levels of serotonin are related to relaxation, mood upliftment. Excess of serotonin causes sedation and apathy, whereas deficiency of serotonin is associated with low mood, lack of will, poor appetite control, anxiety disorders, depression, social behaviour and sexual problems.
Conditions like anxiety disorders, depression, impulsivity, mood disorders, and disturbance in the sleep-wake cycle, obesity, eating disorders, and chronic pain are associated with disruptions in serotonin level.Meditation enhances serotonin production by inhibiting activity in the stress producing regions of the brain.
- Acetylcholine – Information Processor Neurotransmitter
Acetylcholine is the primary neurotransmitter released from nerve endings in both central and peripheral nervous system. It is in charge of muscle movement, alertness, concentration and memory. When levels are optimal, mood is elevated, mind is focused and intelligence increased. But with the low levels learning, recall, ability to think clearly can plummet.
It also controls primitive drives and emotions like anger, fear, rage and aggression. With the imbalance in these neurotransmitters these emotions can affect both the individual and people around them.
Note that there is an inverse relationship between acetylcholine and serotonin (if one increases the quantity of other decreases). In lower amounts, Ach act as a stimulant for brain as it stimulates release of dopamine and serotonin. But too much of Ach inhibits brain and causes depression.
Foods rich in proteins like eggs, fish, dairy, soy products, poultry and foods containing lecithin significantly increase Ach.Supplements that significantly increase Ach concentration are- choline, lecithin, fish oil, flaxseed oil.Certain medications, chemicals, physical activity also increases Ach concentration.
- Oxytocin – The Bonding Hormone
Oxytocin is a hormone that is made in hypothalamus and released into the blood by pituitary gland. It plays a role in pro-social behaviour, sexual reproduction, and during and after child birth. It evokes feelings of contentment, calmness, security and reductions in anxiety level.Oxytocin inhibits brain areas associated with behavioural control of fear and anxiety and protect against stress.
Nasally administered oxytocin has been reported to reduce fear, by inhibiting amygdala (brain area responsible for fear responses). It increases trust, empathy, and social interaction and is responsible for romantic attraction and subsequent monogamous pair bonding.
MDMA(3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine), an addictive drug commonly called as ‘ecstasy’, increases feeling of love, empathy and connection by stimulating oxytocin activity in the brain.
Deficiency of oxytocin is involved in pathophysiology of depression and is related to poor communication, more anxiety and fear, disturbed sleep, sugar cravings and irritability.
- GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) – Brain Activity Regulator
GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is produced from glutamic acid (an amino acid) in the body. It slows down the activity of limbic system (the emotional alarm bell) reducing fear, anxiety and panic.
It acts like a natural tranquilizer and suppresses the hormone prolactin that stimulates night time incontinence.
Glutamic acid and vitamin B6 helps in manufacture of GABA. Zinc also enhances GABA release and inhibits glutamate release- an excitatory neurotransmitter.
Most of the patients with bipolar disorder have lower GABA level and this accounts for their restlessness and anxiety.
- Testosterone – Primary Male Hormone
Testosterone, a hormone produced by testes in men and to smaller extent by ovaries in women. It helps in muscle building, increasing libido, bone mass, muscle strength and energy level.
Testosterone also influences the parts of the brain responsible for regulating emotions. People with high endogenous testosterone levels, have significantly less activity in prefrontal brain regions and less communication between the prefrontal brain and the amygdala (the emotion control regions of the brain), ultimately increasing chances of aggressiveness, depression, impulsivity, anger, mood swings and lowering levels of empathy.
Too little testosterone can also have deleterious effect on male emotional vitality, leading to more passivity, depression, anger, irritability, feelings of insecurity, anxiety.
- Norepinephrine and epinephrine – The Stress fighter Hormones
Norepinephrine is a catecholamine that acts as a neurotransmitter as well as a hormone. It is involved in arousal system of the brain and the sympathetic nervous system, where it is responsible for increase in blood pressure, breathing and respiratory rate. As a hormone, it is released by adrenal glands and is involved in the fight or flight response of the body to stress.
Epinephrine or adrenalin released by medulla of the adrenal glands, surges at the time of panic and emergency. It provokes stress response and brings out the arousal of extreme emotions like fear, anger or amusement.
Too little norepinephrine and epinephrine have been found to be associated with depression, while an excess has been seen in mood disorders like schizophrenia
- Endorphins – Pain reliever
Endorphins are neurotransmitters, chemicals that pass along signals from one neuron to the next. Neurotransmitters play a key role in the function of the central nervous system and can either prompt or suppress the further signalling of nearby neurons.The class of endorphins include three compounds – α – endorphin, β – endorphin and γ – endorphin.
Endorphins are produced as a response to certain stimuli, especially stress, fear or pain. They originate in various parts of the body — the pituitary gland, spinal cord and throughout other parts of brain and nervous system — and interact mainly with receptors in cells found in regions of the brain responsible for blocking pain and controlling emotion.
Endorphins block pain, but they’re also responsible for our feelings of pleasure. It’s widely believed that these feelings of pleasure exist to let us know when we’ve had enough of a good thing and also to encourage us to go after that good thing in order to feel the associated pleasure.Maintaining a balance in these brain chemicals is a key for balanced emotions. One can help maintain emotional health to some extent by altering levels of these key chemicals through a balanced diet, limiting stress, constructive thoughts, yoga,pranayama and meditation.
The four major hormones which determine human’s happiness, viz. Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin, and Oxytocin. Let us see what causes increase in the production of these hormones in the body.
When we exercise, the body releases Endorphins. This hormone helps the body cope with the pain of exercising. We then enjoy exercising because these Endorphins will make us happy. Laughter is another good way of generating Endorphins. We need to spend 30 minutes exercising every day, read or watch funny stuff to get our day’s dose of Endorphins.
The second hormone Dopamine is released when we accomplish many little and big tasks. When we get appreciated for our work at the office or at home, we feel accomplished and good, that is because it releases Dopamine. This also explains why most housewives are unhappy since they rarely get acknowledged or appreciated for their work. Once, we join work, we buy a car, a house, the latest gadgets, a new house so forth. In each instance, it releases Dopamine and we become happy. This is another reason why we become happy when we shop?
The third hormone Serotonin is released when we act in a way that benefits others. When we transcend ourselves and give back to others or to nature or to the society, it releases Serotonin. Even, providing useful information on the internet like writing information blogs, answering people’s questions on Quora or Facebook groups will generate Serotonin. That is because we will use our precious time to help other people via our answers or articles.
The final hormone Oxytocin, is released when we become close to other human beings. When we hug our friends or family Oxytocin is released. Similarly, when we shake hands or put our arms around someone’s shoulders, various amounts of Oxytocin is released.
Now, we can understand why we need to hug a child who has a bad mood.So, it is simple, we have to exercise every day to get Endorphins, we have to accomplish little goals and get Dopamine, we need to be nice to others to get Serotonin and finally hug our kids, friends, and families to get Oxytocin and we will be happy. When we are happy, we can deal with our challenges and problems better.
Sources and Suggested reads:
- Wikipedia and other online sources
- The Chemistry of Emotions
- ‘Destressifying’ a book by Davidji, Hay House, Inc, Aug-2015, 312 pages.
- ‘Principles of Hormone/Behavior Relations’ 2nd Edition, by Donald W Pfaff Robert Rubin Jill Schneider Geoff Head, Academic Press, January 2018, 572 pages.
- ‘Hormones’ 3rd Edition, Anthony W. Norman Helen L. Henry, Academic Press, July 2014, 430 pages.