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The Impact of Dopamine and Serotonin on Emotions

Updated: May 17, 2021

After the second world war research started to focus on positive psychology and the links to happiness and feelings of success. When it comes to our emotions, we cannot look at them associated with only changing our thoughts through cognition. There are biological factors also at play. So, we also need to understand the role that dopamine and serotonin play when it comes to our emotions and our motivations. Have you ever spent quite a while on social media only to find that your mood seems to be lower the more you use it? This can be linked to biological changes within the body.

So, what are they? Well, dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters that are related to our happiness, that happiness and fulfilment that we all want. Dopamine is very much focused on sex, food stimulation and achievement. If we do well at a game, for example, we get a rush and say “Oh, let's play it again.” Or “I want to have a go again”. When you refresh your Facebook page and see new notifications come up, dopamine says to your brain, “that's great. Let's do it again”. It tells us to seek reward and it shows us little sparks of excitement for many things that we feel great about. And

The opposite neurotransmitter, serotonin, is still related to happiness, but it's the aftereffect. It tells your body to let you know “I'm full now” after a meal or gives you a satisfying feeling after achieving something. For example, “I need to relax now. I've achieved my diploma”. You will be satisfied temporarily.

They both must co-exist in order for this to take place, as neurotransmitters in our brains act in pairs. To emphasise, dopamine is very much the ‘Seeking’ neurotransmitter and serotonin is the ‘satisfied’ neurotransmitter. They're both are focused on reward and the level of reward our body receives. They move us away from danger towards seeking the good stuff, but then being satisfied once we've had it with that great feeling. The challenge is like I just mentioned, they need to co-exist.

Neurotransmitters do not act alone in the brain. They're there to help balance each other a little bit like looking at a Ying and Yang symbol. It creates harmony. Too much of one or more than the other can lead to unhealthy behaviour or choices. So, imagine we don't get that satisfaction or we get the satisfaction and then the satisfaction disappears very quickly. It can then lead us to seek more and then we become satisfied. But then over time, it doesn’t satisfy us, so we seek more. And then we continue on this cycle, which can lead to addiction.

High dopamine and low serotonin levels can actually increase addiction and lower our mood. It can happen very quickly because for example, if you think of drugs, a person will use them, they will have a quick and stimulating effect. Dopamine says, “Whoa, that was great”. Then you're satisfied with the serotonin telling your brain that you've had a good experience, but when that wears off dopamine says, “do it again”. You do it again. It doesn't have the same effect because now your body is used to it. Now you need more of it in order to get the same level of serotonin in your body and the cycle increases and intensifies. And it's the same with alcohol, right? We drink to feel relaxed, we feel relaxed, but then the same level of drink doesn't have the same effect on us. So, we drink more.

There are studies and research to look at the link and the effects of both dopamine and serotonin. For you to understand emotions, dopamine and serotonin are a significant part of that. As you increase your emotional intelligence, it’s important to understand that dopamine and serotonin have a big impact on behaviour. To understand that our body will seek out that reward and then want to be satisfied with it, which becomes a vicious cycle, leading to strong emotions and consistent changes in behaviour. When we understand this we can bring more awareness to what we do and make attempts the change our habits to not fall into the trap or break the cycle. As well as noticing them in others.


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