Swimming, Zumba, and Dopamine: dealing with stress

The last couple of weeks have, for a few reasons, been a little bit stressful. I’ve found myself getting over busy and overwhelmed.

One thing that’s really helped has been doing exercise. The feeling of relaxation, and release I felt after exercising this week was most welcome. Focusing on something totally different than the thoughts that were causing me stress was a great thing to do. During the course of the classes I did, I found myself being able to concentrate, being able to really control my movement, and having very positive and encouraging thoughts and emotions. I loved the feeling of having completed my Zumba class and also my swimming class, and I felt super peaceful afterwards.

I was actually surprised by how good I felt – it was almost medicinal. And then I remembered the word dopamine.

I don’t remember a lot about first year psychology at university, but one thing I do remember is Dr Verity Brown (now Professor) standing in front of a group of us and saying the word dopamine at least three times a minute, and talking about brain receptors. As it turns out I never made it to second year Psychology because other subjects seemed better fitted to my interests. But this last week I was remembering Verity Brown and dopamine.

So dopamine is a chemical that is produced by our neurons in order to send messages to other nerve cells. It is known as the feel good hormone, and it makes us feel euphoric, able to concentrate, and motivated.

Dopamine is released every time we do exercise, therefore causing us to feel good. Too low levels of dopamine in the brain cause many unwelcome symptoms including decreased interest in life, procrastination, decreased memory, fatigue and mood swings. Certain amounts of dopamine are also needed for a part of the brain that controls movement (the basal ganglia), to function properly. When there is not enough of it, spasms and tremors -symptoms of Parkinson’s disease- can occur. Parkinson’s is treated with medication that is converted into dopamine in the brain.

It’s safe to say it is an important chemical, and you can see why it is referred to as the happy hormone.

And it makes sense that doing exercise- which is one if the natural ways to increase dopamine production, would make us feel good! And I tell you, it worked for me this week.