Photo of our ‘Brews & Grooves’ participants, by Mark Flynn
How do endorphins help treat loneliness?
I grew up in the countryside, and my secondary school was in the next village across from mine. Most days I took the bus, but whenever I had an exam I would take a different approach- I would cycle.
It was a 40 minute journey and a waste of last minute study time, but I would willingly pedal across the Mendips for one important reason: by the time I arrived, any nerves about the exam would have disappeared.
This trick I used to get through my A levels has a very simple scientific basis: the release of endorphins in the brain. These chemicals, released by the brain’s hypothalamus and pituitary gland, bind to reward centres in the brain and can help to decrease pain and stress. They are released when the human body undergoes physical activity, but can also be produced when we eat spicy food, get a massage, or enjoy a good belly laugh.
The classes and events that Curious Motion provide are unquestionably designed to encourage endorphin release in participants’ brains. Why? Curious Motion was set up to tackle loneliness and isolation in the Lower Valley of Calderdale, UK.
We know that loneliness can reduce the effectiveness of people’s immune systems, increase the risk of dementia and stroke, and lead to depression and anxiety . A lonely person has much higher levels of stress hormones like cortisol in their brains than a non-lonely person. But scientists believe that endorphins can actually suppress these stress hormones, reducing some of the negative effects of loneliness. This is on top of the participant being able to dance with others and meet new friends at our dance classes!
I’ve seen this endorphin release happen in real time at Curious Motion’s classes and events. Take ‘Dance For Wellbeing’ for example. Participants arrive, some together, but most on their own. Some are regulars, already joking with each other and with Matt and Sam. New participants are welcomed in and told kindly by regulars ‘You can always copy me if you’re stuck!’
Some of the newcomers are nervous, but I can actually see some of those nerves melt away as they begin the gentle movements, reaching and rotating their arms, breathing into curves and tilts, bending and stretching. They begin to open up more, to ask more questions. By the end of the session, when we all sit down with a cup of tea, they are laughing and sharing things about themselves, and one woman eagerly asks Sam if there’s any more classes she can join in with. Sam, always prepared, produces a leaflet, and encourages the woman to give her a ring if she needs help with the booking.
If an hour of simple, gentle movement and a cup of tea with others can do so much to increase the endorphins in a person’s brain, it does make me wonder what the world would be like if it was the norm to incorporate ‘endorphin time’ into busy schedules. If those A level exams had all started with a 2 minute dance break, I wouldn’t have been the only one feeling less nervous. Maybe job interviews should happen whilst strolling around parks. And if politicians did yoga before meetings, we might be looking at kinder, more equitable policies. But for now, we can move our own bodies, laugh with others, and get those little boosts of endorphins in our own small ways. Perhaps by the next time I check in with you, you’ll have made some ‘endorphin time’ for yourself!