The other day I was walking into work and there was an older gentleman, probably in his late 70s, looking for the hearing clinic. Honestly, I don’t pay attention to the dozens of businesses in the building, so when he asked I said I wasn’t sure where it was. He ended up not following me into the building. When I went in, I quickly looked at the directory, and then ran back outside and down the street to get him. I went with him to the hearing clinic, before going down to my office. He was very grateful, and I felt good. I also had been in a lot of pain that day (my hip) and I noticed (awhile later) that the pain had drastically reduced. Why did this happen? Because my body released endorphins when I performed an act of kindness.
Endorphins are literally our bodies natural pain killers. We produced around 20 or so different types of endorphins, and they are all released by two parts of our brain – the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland – when we are stressed or in pain. Endorphins bind to our body’s opioid receptors which then gives us some pain relief. Opioid medications basically imitate endorphins when they enter our bodies, also clinging to the opioid receptors. And actually, when we take opioid medications, our body produces few endorphins because it doesn’t think it has to produce as many anymore (part of the reason it is easy to become addicted to opioid medications). Now, you might be saying, if these endorphins are so good, why am I in so much pain? Why would I need pain medications, including opioids, if these endorphins actually worked?
Here’s the thing, endorphins do work pretty well. There is a reason our bodies evolved to have them. Chronic pain is weird though and can affect many areas of our lives, which can increase pain (biopsychosocial approach) that make it more difficult for endorphins to work. Also, when we have chronic pain, we end up doing a lot of things that are the opposite of what would be helpful. We lie in bed all day, we withdraw from others, we become depressed making it hard to laugh for example, we stay inside, etc. Doing a lot of the opposite actually helps to produce more endorphins. Here are some examples of activities and practices that cause our bodies to produce more endorphins naturally:
- exercise – particularly moderate exercise. I find I always feel good when I work out. There is an uphill walk called the Coquitlam Crunch when I live and I swear it is an endorphin boosting activity (probably why a lot of locals do it). However, if you struggle to exercise, any activity to start will likely get some endorphins going.
- acupuncture – I get acupuncture at least once a month because it reduces my stress, so it makes sense that it produces endorphins (a lot of people find it helps to reduce pain as well)
- meditation – I’m a big meditator, if you follow this blog you know that. This is another activity that I always feel good after.
- Sex – I mean it’s physical activity and an enjoyable activity so it totally makes sense this would produce endorphins.
- Music – singing, dancing or playing an instrument gets the endorphins going. So, if you’re in the kitchen, blast some tunes and take a few moments to dance! (I love kitchen dancing). Every time I play the piano I feel really good.
- Laughter – as I mentioned, if you have a low mood this can be difficult, but perhaps turning on a funny movie or calling a friend who always makes you laugh might be helpful. As a therapist, I try to utilize laughter in client sessions as much as possible (and appropriate).
- Sunshine – yep, getting outside, even if it’s just to sit on your deck or balcony, or sit in a park for awhile. In the winter, investing in a UV light. All of this can boost our natural pain killers.
- Aromatherapy – particularly scents of lavender and vanilla. I often use lavender in my diffuser, which I always have on when I do telehealth counselling sessions at home. It’s a scent that is meant to help you feel more relaxed, and understanding how this work (endorphins!) is helpful for me at least.
- Altruism – so my opening story is one about doing a kind act for a stranger. Likewise volunteering (I used to volunteer at a children’s hospital, and then at a crisis lines for kids and teens) also produces endorphins. Honestly, while I love volunteering, I find that even holding the door open for someone feels good. And this is why!
- Chocolate -it actually contains a type of endorphin within it, which is why it helps to produce more. While I’m not saying you should eat a chocolate bar every day, the occasional chocolatey treat might be a good idea!
Okay, so I’m not saying that doing all of these things will mean you don’t have to take any pain medications anymore. What I am saying is that it can (a) reduce your need for some meds (I went off one from honestly exercising and meditating), or (b) can make you feel even better, while you still take medication. And look, none of this is a guarantee, everyone is different, and there are a lot of factors that affect our pain levels, but I’m always looking for what can help. That way we can all keep making the most of it!