Carving a Path to Health through Chemical Boosts

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Did you know that your body has a host of chemicals accessible to you for boosting both your health and happiness? As a health practitioner, I find this fascinating and exciting. I get to see my clients with a different perspective — which chemicals are they a bit short on that could be a player in their compromised health?

These chemicals — Serotonin, Oxytocin, Dopamine, and Endorphins — when released, provide you with opportunities to feel healthier and happier. In fact, you can turn them on for a boost by doing simple and fun exercises/activities throughout your day.

By learning about these naturally existing chemicals and how they detract or enhance our health, we can look for those things we can do to help them be released. These chemicals get released in short bursts and don’t tend to last. We can increase the frequency of their presence with new habits. We can create micro-moments of chemical boosts. Micro-moments add up over time to improved over-all health and positivity.

Here is a quick overview of our inner chemistry — the four major players for health and happiness. (Note: there are many chemical processes in our body happening all the time, these are the major players).

1. Dopamine: For most of us, when we are low in dopamine, we experience self- doubt and tend to procrastinate. When we have enough dopamine circulating we feel motivated. One of the easiest ways to boost our dopamine is to take our large goals and chunk them down to smaller goals. Each time we accomplish one of our smaller goals, consciously celebrate your work. Celebrations can be simple — no need for a party with all of your friends (unless you want to). I like to celebrate by going to my favorite bookstore or cafe for my favorite coffee or tea. I return with more motivation to go onto my next goal.
2. Oxytocin: Too little of this neuropeptide and we experience mistrust or separation. We can boost oxytocin through holding hands, hugging, touch (massage anyone?), and, my favorite, eye contact. Each day we can boost our oxytocin in simple ways that connect us to others leading to a calm and connect state of mind.
3. Serotonin: When we lack serotonin, we feel depression and/or loneliness. The easiest way to boost serotonin is to practice heartfelt gratitude. End your day with listing 3 – 5 things you are grateful for from your day. You will feel better and improve your sleep as well.
4. Endorphins: Most associated with the second wind that athletes experience. When we lack endorphins, we feel pain and increased stress. Exercise is one way to increase endorphins. Another way is a good laugh (a full belly laugh) or even a good cry. If the weather prevents me from getting out into nature (my favorite endorphin release), I keep a stack of movies that always bring on my laughter or my tears.

I hope you find this useful and will plan for daily boosts of one or more of your naturally occurring chemicals for health and happiness. Let me know how it works for you!

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Canine Massage – After the Event Notes

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Here is a follow up from my Canine Massage workshops at Camp Unleashed over Memorial Day weekend — which is very exciting, I might add! So please keep reading!

Let me begin by saying that Saturday night was HOT, the room was even hotter and there wasn’t a breath of air moving! The people were uncomfortable and the dogs were panting endlessly from the heat — I walked around the room giving the dogs pieces of ice, which they were grateful for. On the second night, Sunday, the temperatures were more bearable as it had rained earlier in the day.

I’ve been teaching these canine massage workshops for more than ten years. Each one is different — many of the people are now regular attendees of Camp Unleashed and always with new faces wanting a weekend devoted to everything dog. For our canine massage workshops, we set guidelines — when the workshop begins the door is closed and everyone is asked to remain in the room until the end of the workshop. We set up these guidelines because a room full of dogs become alert, bark, and the calm in the room is disrupted whenever someone enters or leaves the room during the workshop. At least, that’s how it’s always been until now.

This weekend, I added a new element to the class — eye contact with our dogs and teaching about how oxytocin (known as the cuddle hormone) works in our bodies and contributes to both our health and leads to a calm-and-connect response in both people and our animals. I’ve taught about the role of oxytocin before in much less depth. This time I drew from the work of Barbara Fredrickson, in her book ‘Love 2.0’., where she talks about the importance of eye contact in releasing oxytocin and creating Positive Resonance in each person as eye contact is held. She also presents the science that supports creating micro-moments of love throughout our day when we experience Positive Resonance through eye contact. Her work is important and foundational in the science of Positive Psychology and positive emotions (any of you who know me, know that I am committed to the study and practice of Positive Psychology).

I was excited to present this new material in the workshop even though I was a bit uncertain of the outcome since much of the research is between people and other people or animals and other animals. I was taking a leap to do the exercise between people and their dogs. Now that the weekend is finished, I am even more excited that I presented the eye contact practice and the oxytocin connection that led to the calm-and-connect response.

This was the first weekend, in years, that people needed to leave during the workshop because of the heat. Here is the important observation: It was also the first weekend that when people and their dog needed to leave, the room didn’t go ‘crazy’ with excited dogs becoming alert, barking, and disrupting the calm in the room created by learning and doing massage!

I believe it is because of the eye contact we practiced with our dogs at the beginning of the workshop and returned to it throughout the massage. Through the eye contact, oxytocin was released in both the dogs and their people which led to a calm-and-connect response in the room. I felt myself participating in a love fest being witness to a strengthened bond between people and their dogs! Because of the calm-and-connect atmosphere, when someone needed to leave, the dogs did not need to become excited into a stress response that is closer to the fight-or-flight response we are all familiar with.
I was amazed at the difference in the room! Because I led the workshop both Saturday and Sunday night, I was even more convinced when I witnessed the same calm-and-connect atmosphere in the room when someone needed to leave then as well.

Of course, now I wish I had another canine massage workshop to lead this weekend. I’ll need to wait until the end of the summer to try it again. And, I will do it again! In the meantime, I am taking the time to make eye contact with my own dog (and cat) and loving the experience of our positive resonance. I’d love to hear your thoughts as you might be inspired to try out this exercise with your own animals.

Massage, Health, and Oxytocin

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This weekend I get to do something I love doing and look forward to every May and August! I go to Camp Unleashed right here in Becket, MA. Yes, Camp Unleashed is all about dogs and their people. For three days, people come out to a YMCA camp in the woods of Becket with their dogs and do everything involving their dogs. They play, learn, swim, hike, and deepen their bonds.

What do I do? I get to lead Canine Massage workshops in the evenings — teaching and leading people in how to massage their dogs for health, healing, and being better advocates for their dogs by being the first to notice when something changes or goes wrong – conditions like arthritis (joint pain), injury, growths, and ticks which can lead to Lyme disease and other tick borne diseases (and yes, tick borne diseases are as unpleasant for dogs as they are for people). Both evenings are fun and relaxing for everyone!

Why am I writing about this? Canine Massage is an evening about being happy and healthy for both the dogs and their people! Many of us know the benefits of receiving massage. Our health improves through the skilled and healing touch of massage in many ways such as needed relaxation, improved circulation, lowered blood pressure, reduced stress hormones, and healing from strain or injury. For dogs, the benefits are the same when they receive massage. Massage calms them when they need calming such as after a long hike or when they are nervous before or during a storm. Massage can be done to energize them when they are getting ready for agility and/or show events so they are at their best. Massage improves healing times, increases circulation, lowers stress hormones, and increases the bonds we have with our canine companions.

Another important benefit of massage is the increase of oxytocin in both ourselves and our dogs — especially when we also include eye contact. Oxytocin is the hormone that not only leaves us feeling good, it also decreases cortisol (the stress hormone) which strengthens our immune system and our health. Oxytocin’s effects go even further — it plays an important role in social bonding and attachment while building trust. Also, when we increase our levels of oxytocin, we are more likely to experience a calm-and-connect response which aids in our feeling good and receiving all the benefits of massage — isn’t that something we’d all rather experience?

If you have a dog in your household, consider taking a few minutes to give some calming massage. It’s easy to do, fun, and you will both feel calmer and healthier.

If you don’t have a dog, no worries! You can massage your cat. You can also share massage with all the members of your family. We all deserve more oxytocin and the healing that comes from even a few minutes of a shoulder or foot massage.