How to manage your own brain chemistry

These 8 neurotransmitters underpin performance, say authors Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton.

by Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton
Last Updated: 02 Aug 2019

There are over 400 neurotransmitters and hormones that influence how we think, feel, speak and behave. Physiology drives performance, yet most of us experience thoughts, reactions and emotions without realising that we can strategically influence them.

‘Physical Intelligence’ is the ability to detect and actively manage the balance of those chemicals so that we can achieve more, stress less and live more happily. While there are many chemical interactions that we can’t and wouldn’t want to influence, we can influence eight chemicals that work in combination to make or break our success.

The more we understand these chemicals and why they make us feel certain ways, the more we can strategically manage our emotions at work.


We all know an adrenalin rush – increased heart rate/blood flow in survival situations pushing us to immediate action. However, adrenalin can also increase nervousness, making it difficult to communicate effectively.

If you feel nerves building, move, walk, shake out your legs and arms to disperse adrenalin.


Dopamine is the great motivator. When we get it, we want more – from binge watching television programmes to landing that big account. Dopamine impacts goal orientation and engaging people in change.

Right now, find something to enjoy/someone to appreciate. You just created a ‘reward,’ boosting your dopamine. Sunshine and laughter will do the same.


Worry, anxiety, impatience, anger, often believing you or others are to blame – these are all high cortisol speaking. The positive effects of cortisol keep us alive. However, sustained periods of pressure increase cortisol leading to underperformance and poor decision-making.  

To manage cortisol, first ground yourself (feel the weight of your body on the ground/in the chair – rooted, not ‘uptight’), then start paced breathing. This involves breathing slowly from your diaphragm, counting steadily in and out, with longer outbreaths to dispel CO2, for at least 10 minutes a day.


Think of a time when you liked being somewhere, when you felt safe and included. That’s oxytocin you’re feeling, levels of which fluctuate based on whether we’re in the ‘in’ or ‘out’ group, feel safe or feel threatened. Oxytocin facilitates social bonding and feeling responsibility to others. Too much and we may be overly dependent on others. Too little and we may not build relationships or use networks for support.

Boost oxytocin (released when we trust someone) by empathising, creating harmony or managing conflict. Get in touch with someone you haven’t spoken to in a while, or find someone to mentor and offer advice to.


The high-performance chemical, DHEA supports vitality, longevity, stamina, memory, responsiveness, and cognitive, immune system, and heart–brain function. DHEA levels drop after 30 – accelerated by stress and high cortisol, leading to premature aging. Improving our capacity to perform under pressure slows the aging process.

Synthetic DHEA is banned for Olympians, yet we can make it ourselves using paced breathing described above.


Serotonin influences happiness, status, satisfaction and well-being: we believe that we are enough and have enough. Serotonin is important for the immune system and deep-seated confidence. High cortisol will drain serotonin levels until depression sets in.

Mindfulness, yoga, meditation, or quietly focusing on your breathing every day for 10 minutes all boost serotonin. Smiling also releases serotonin in ourselves and others, as do eating bananas and high-quality dark chocolate.


After a busy week and a good rest, you find yourself breathing out in long sighs and feeling relief. That’s acetylcholine, which is responsible for energy renewal, recovery from pressure, learning and memory.  

To stimulate acetylcholine, take a bath with Epsom salts. Magnesium and potassium, which modulate the release of the neurotransmitter, will be absorbed, your perceived energy levels will increase and you’ll sleep better too.


Testosterone (along with dopamine) drives our desire to achieve and compete, enables risk tolerance and confidence, and is vital for empowerment. Too much and we become overly confident, arrogant, don’t prepare well or work well on a team.  Too little and we become risk-averse and avoid competition.

Good posture and resistance-based physical exercise increase testosterone. You can also try ‘power poses’, such as standing tall with your arms in the air (possibly one for the bathroom rather than the boardroom – ed.)

Claire Dale and Patricia Peyton are the authors of Physical Intelligence (Simon & Schuster), available now in ebook and hardback, priced at £14.99.

Image credit: meo/Pexels


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