Something’s happened to me over the last couple of months. Something that’s made me rethink everything I knew about my bad moods…
I found out that my bad mood is just one of my regular moods that’s gone bad because my boyfriend took it out of the fridge with the milk and didn’t put either of them back in.
Boy do things get sour around here sometimes. My mood becomes completely riddled with bacteria, and no one can have a smoothie.
But like I said, it only happens sometimes. My mood only goes bad occasionally. So while the actual milk is a guaranteed right off when left out of the fridge, my mood is much more unpredictable. Occasionally it just ferments a little and we end up with a nice probiotic-drink kinda mood. But other times it goes into full stomach-ache mode and my boyfriend stops buying milk.
No, it’s not bipolar. It’s to do with a bunch of brain chemicals and the way they jiggy around my head at different times of the month. Biology is to blame for my bursts of bitchface. Also known as being hormonal.
Tell you something you don’t know? Fine. Strap in.
I realise PMS isn’t big news. I’m not claiming to have discovered the cure for coronavirus here. It’s just that all this time indoors and away from the likes of overcommitments, I was given a chance to meticulously track my ever-changing frame of mind like a data analyst.
Whereas before I could blame my anxiety and dreary depressive states on external factors like late nights, public transport and too many stupid questions from my friends, being in lockdown with very little personal stress factors made me realise how big of assholes my hormones actually are.
I noticed how I felt like a lively extraverted fellow one day but woke up wanting to crawl into cocoon and never come out the next. And because I wasn’t out in the real world, doing real things, I knew it was something inside me causing me such woes. And not the stupidity of the human race. (Sorry for blaming us all.)
This led to a bunch of research and I ended up down this rabbit hole of human biology. I was on a quest to find out who these hormone jerks really were.
I ended up discovering all this interesting stuff about the roles of the hormones associated with menstruation – estrogen and progesterone. In fact, I became really in touch with them, got real close. We even started to Zoom chatted regularly. I was like, “Hey guys, what up? Was that my boyfriend’s loud breathing keeping me awake last night or was that Progesterone setting off alarm bells in my amygdala again? Either way I want to punch my boyfriend.”
My hormones are like “Hahaha, and all this time you thought it was your busy social life, goal chasing, and all those comfort zone breaching activities making you anxious and dangerous to be asleep around. But in actual fact, it was just us jumping around your brain and tampering with your neurotransmitters. THIS. WHOLE. TIME.”
“Ahh, you got me, hormones! You’re lucky I have a sense of humour, you little weasels,” I replied.
But the real humdinger of a revelation came with all the new knowledge I gained about other hormones that affect our moods and behaviours. In particular, a person’s confidence. A favourite topic of mine. I’ve spent a fair bit of time wondering why I can get naked in front of strangers and other people think it’s scary and weird. And now I think I have some answers.
So come on. Gather around. Grab a glass of milk. I’m going to try to explain some sciency stuff that could benefit you. At least until you start pissing me off.
WHY SOME PEOPLE ARE CONFIDENT AND OTHERS ARE NOT
So we know (at least there has been a number of studies) that the primary sex hormones – estrogen, progesterone and testosterone can affect our mood and behavioural functions. Sometimes we’re on top of the world, other times life has little meaning. Basically these hormones are associated with a bunch of internal peace and joy but can also make you feel quite literally depressed. Which means depending on the ebb and flow of your own hormones, some of us are inclined to feel worse more often than others.
But what about the roles of other common hormones associated with our moods and behaviours? Like serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine. In The Confidence Code by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, there’s a whole chapter called ‘Wired for Confidence’ which gives some scientific clues as to why some people are more confident than others.
“A lot of personality is biologically driven. It is clearly both nature and nurture, and understanding what genes do to affect the biology of the brain, to create temperament, is something the NIH recognized as a priority.”says Dr. Jay Lombard, one of the founders of Genomind, a pioneering genetic testing company. From The Confidence Code.
Just like that fine wanky wine I drank on my last birthday, it is complex. Confidence as a personality trait is a messy medley of emotion, cognition, hormones and neural activity. Plus it’s also understood to be influenced by our genetics too.
The good news on the genes front, according to this book, is that while some people are born with genes more conducive to extroversion and comfort-zone breaching, there’s scientific studies around the idea that your genes can totally be rewired to make you braver.
It’s from this little scientific train of thought that I’ve been inspired with a premise for a book. My longterm goal is to assemble a paperback covering my journey from coward to Comfort is for Wimps connoisseur.
You’re the first in the know about this. You’re so woke.
Because did you know that I’ve not always been very confident? In fact, I still don’t really think I am, I just tell myself I am so I can do better at life. And that’s taken some serious mind shifts and brain training. But I want to talk more about it in a book, so hold that thought. Fo now, let’s get back to the blog post.
Where were we?
Oh yeah, science. So there are these things, called scientists. And some of these scientists have taken the liberty of studying how the different levels and distribution of serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine can impact our behaviours in conjunction with our genetics.
All this info I’m about to share is from the confidence book noted above, by the way, so if you have any questions, please hold them until the end. Or ask the authors.
SEROTONIN – FEELIN’ GOOOOD?
Serotonin is known to calm the nerves and make us happy as Larry, whoever that is. The more of it you have, the better you feel. A lot like that song about beans and tooting.
SLC6A4 is the regulating gene for serotonin, transporting it through our system like a good little bellboy. But this gene comes in a few varieties. Meaning some types of luggage carriers are more efficient than others.
One variation (apparently the most rare) literally got dealt the short straws in life, being made up of two short strands. People with this variation are more prone to anxiety and depression.
Another variation has one long and one short strand, which is better but still not the best.
And then there’s one with two long strands which, according to this book, scientists believe make people more resilient.
Resilience = confident. Amiright?
OXYTOCIN – YO CUDDLE HORMONE!
Oxytocin is the fuzzy-wuzzy-feelin’s hormone, for lack of a better descriptor. Like serotonin, it’s a neurotransmitter but is distributed by its own variations of a different gene. Oxytocin encourages things like social connections, sex, sharing, caring and cuddles. Given its fuzzy-wuzzyness, it also inspires people to feel less negativity towards other people. You can already see how having oxytocin would make you more confident in a world full of people when you don’t absolutely hate them.
Also like serotonin, oxytocin works to keep the amygdala calm and quiet. The amygdala is the part of our brain that keeps us alert. It processes emotions, like fear, very quickly to keep us out of danger. We aren’t running from wolves very often anymore, but you do need to know when to stay inside and not catch coronavirus. It’s helpful in keeping us safe, but a pain in the neck if its easily triggered and you become riddled with anxiety because you don’t have enough serotonin or oxytocin to chill the fuck out.
But to benefit from the personality traits that make you a pleasant person to sit down and have a kebab with, it’s an advantage to have one particular variation of the transporter gene, over the other. The OXTR gene controls the delivery of oxytocin and one variation of it can help make you a real firecracker of a social being, while the other contributes to lower optimism and weaker social skills.
You can boost your oxytocin levels by going out and hugging a few babies, but it’s harder for you to naturally feel good about the world if you don’t have the right genetic foundations. But not impossible, as we’ll learn in my book one day.
DOPAMINE – YOU IS BRAVE, DAWG.
Dopamine might even better explain how this gene variation business works. Dopamine is the hormone associated with curiosity and risk taking.
I personally like to think that even if I hate hugs with anyone who isn’t my boyfriend, my dog or my baby nephew, my confidence levels are inspired by high levels of the adventure hormone, dopamine.
But who knows, I haven’t taken any tests.
COMT is the gene that breaks down dopamine and it also comes in two variants. One variant slowly removes dopamine from the brain and the other removes it quickly. In stressful situations, when dopamine is really being pumped into the brain fast, it’s helpful to have the variant of the gene that removes it fast so that your brain doesn’t overload and cause you to freak the fuck out.
People with the variant that removes dopamine slowly tend to be the people who crack under pressure. While people with the variant that removes it fast tend to thrive in similar sitches.
Think of the type of people who exert high levels of confidence in high pressure situations. Think Masterchef contestants, professional athletes or experts at choosing plates from the sushi train.
THE WINNING COMBO
I don’t know what the winning combo is because it’s not as straightforward as a fast food menu. But it’s easy to see how having a perfect combination of these three hormones spinning around your brain could contribute to making someone more chill and open to getting out of their comfort zone.
And even though only some of us are born with the comfort-zone-breaching genetic codes, it doesn’t mean you’ve been written a sentence if you’re born with a wussbag hormone balance. It doesn’t mean you can’t crawl out of your scaredy cat corner to meet the braver version of yourself that wants to join the circus.
You might occasionally get blindsided by your sex hormones like I do, but if you just take the time to get to know those hormones like I did, you’ll start being a bit more chill and they’ll practically be begging you to get upset about milk.
MAKE YOURSELF A LITTLE SCIENCE EXPERIMENT
Anyone who wants to give living on the wildside a little whirl totally can. I don’t pretend to be a wizard of confidence. Hell, I can barely look a stranger in the eyes still. But I’m always up for the challenge and I want to help other people understand how I do it so they can too.
There is actual scientific evidence to suggest that the genes we were born with can be manipulated and changed. Epigenetic studies show how the things we do in life – our life experiences – can change our epigene (the outside area of our genes).
I believe that in the same way I have over the past six years with this blog, pretty much anyone can grow the beanstalk to climb off the I-care-too-much-what-people-think bandwagon we’ve become accustomed to before now.
It involves a lot of introspection, outward observation, mindfulness and paradigm shifting, but I’m prepared to break down my ideas on how to make that change happen. Whether it’s joining that little circus or visiting an estranged relative, there’s a methodology to embracing discomfort and caring less about what people think, and I have a bunch of stories to prove it.