When you want to feel good, drugs and alcohol are a tempting solution -- quick relief with relatively little effort. But the thing about the big highs is that they are inevitably followed by the big lows, not to mention long-term health problems, potential legal consequences and the ever-present threat of addiction.
Fortunately, there are several healthy ways to feel "high" without relying on drugs or alcohol -- and they come side effect-free courtesy of Mother Nature:
Most people have heard of the "runner's high," but you don't have to be a runner to get this natural mood boost. Any heart-pounding physical activity -- for example, 50 minutes running on a treadmill -- can release endorphins, endocannabinoids, serotonin, dopamine and other brain chemicals that are nature's versions of drugs like marijuana or heroin. Evidence suggests these chemicals are behind the runner's high, helping to reduce pain and provide a sense of well-being.
Aerobic activity also produces brain chemicals that reduce anxiety and depression as much, if not more than, medication in some cases. No marathon training needed -- all it takes is 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, three days a week. You may also sleep better, lose weight, have more energy and feel better about yourself in the process.
Endorphins, dopamine and other feel-good brain chemicals are produced after sex, too. Do the deed regularly and you may even notice improvements in your immune system. Of course, sex can become a problem if it's used as a substitute for drugs or alcohol, or if it becomes part of a compulsive behavior pattern, but when engaged in responsibly, sex can be a healthy, all-natural high.
#3 Touch and Be Touched
It's not just sex that gets the feel-good brain chemicals pumping. Any type of human touch, whether a hug, a reassuring squeeze of the hand or a snuggle from a pet, can be physically and emotionally healing. A simple embrace sparks a flood of oxytocin -- nature's "love drug" -- that makes people feel more secure and attached. At the same time, stress hormones such as cortisol recede, helping people feel less stressed and anxious.
Healing touch can also be in the form of massage, which transmits electrical signals throughout the body to stimulate circulation, boost immunity and reduce pain and tension. Like other natural highs, massage also appears to stimulate the release of endorphins. These effects make massage an effective part of treatment for many conditions, including chronic pain, high blood pressure, depression, addiction and eating disorders.
Similar mechanisms -- namely endogenous opioids and endorphins -- are at work to relieve pain and boost mood when someone receives acupuncture. The fine needles used in this form of traditional Chinese medicine trigger calcium flow, which interacts with white blood cells to produce natural painkillers.
#4 Talk to a Friend
Ever feel that warm and contented sensation after venting to a friend? Scientific evidence shows that gossiping is a form of social bonding that releases stress-relieving endorphins. Better yet, get together with friends for a few laughs or listen to your favorite music and get double the rush.
As social creatures, humans rely on these connections for our physical, mental and social well-being. So even if you're not the touchy-feely type, good conversation may be all you need to re-energize.
What really makes people happy? As part of the "positive psychology" movement, scientists have set out to answer this question. The result? Materialism is out. Service is in.
Put simply, researchers have learned that doing good feels good. Long after the thrill of a new purchase wears off, doing something nice for others -- or investing in an experience shared with others -- yields lasting memories and a sense of truly being alive. Happiness that comes from having meaning and purpose (as opposed to self-gratification) not only feels good, but also affects the expression of our genes.
Are there activities you've done that cause you to stop worrying, forget the world and lose all sense of time? Described by some as "flow," this state of being produces a long-lasting sense of euphoria. Doing more of these activities, whether it's drawing, solving a puzzle, playing a sport, cooking or playing an instrument, is one of the keys to enduring satisfaction.
Never experienced the sensation of "flow?" Start with deep, conscious breathing. This type of mindfulness practice can slow down a racing mind, making room for a sense of peace and calm.
When stress mounts, the urge to self-soothe can lead us in some counter-productive directions -- drugs, alcohol or overeating, for example. As it turns out, some of the most powerful mood-enhancing chemicals are not swallowed, smoked, snorted or injected. They've been within us all along.
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