STEP 1: Increase your pain threshold to become more resilient and make more testosterone when it counts: Under pressure.
Professors Sapolsky spoke about a study. Participants were hooked up to a brain scanner to see brain regions that lit up when they experienced physical pain. Participants were told they would feel pain from a pin prick and were given the cream. Result: prefrontal cortex did nothing, but the amygdala and the insular cortex lit up, indicating the more pain experienced, the more cortisol produced.
In the second part of the study, they told the participants about a powerful analgesic cream that would prevent them from experiencing any pain. However, the cream was a placebo that did nothing. When the participants were pricked with the pin again, something remarkable happened. The prefrontal cortex lit up like a Christmas tree, and the neural circuit that inhibits the amygdala from firing up and feeling pain became stronger. This indicates that we can train our brains to tolerate pain better by strengthening this neural circuit.
To reduce pain during high sets in the gym, I use two methods. First, I picture the break lighting up in my prefrontal cortex and tell myself there’s no pain. This lowers the activation potential of my amygdala, which reduces cortisol and allows me to build more muscle and testosterone. Second, I visualize my prefrontal cortex blocking the image of pain and raising cortisol, which strengthens the neural circuit that inhibits the amygdala from firing up and feeling pain.
I use this by doing the following:
- In the gym on a burn set
- Doing a cold bath / shower
- Doing hand hangs in the gym
Overview: Increasing your pain threshold through training can activate the brain circuit that inhibits the amygdala, reducing negative emotional states and elevated cortisol. Laughing triggers this circuit for me and helps keep negativity at bay. Training this circuit can make the amygdala subservient, and a powerful tool for managing negative emotions.
The 4-stages of flow
The four stages of flow are rooted in ultradian cycles throughout the day. Dopamine governs our motivation and works with testosterone to keep it at a stable level throughout the day. A pulse generator checks our stress hormones every few hours and releases LH into the bloodstream, which is a precursor to testosterone. Testosterone is produced every two to three hours, so optimal motivation and energy lead to more muscle building and confidence.
Pain causes a decrease in dopamine, which is why we need to increase our pain threshold.
When we experience pain, dopamine levels can drop to almost zero. People often try to boost their dopamine by eating comfort food, playing video games, or using social media. However, this can cause dopamine levels to fluctuate excessively, leading to negative effects like low energy, frustration, cravings, and addiction. Since dopamine provides us with physical and cognitive energy, it’s important to maintain it at a stable level.
To avoid the up-and-down pattern, we must achieve stable dopamine levels. Another thing to note is the celebration of a big win. That can cause dopamine levels to skyrocket, but they will plummet afterward, leaving us feeling deflated. We want to avoid this pattern. Celebrate the win but keep it cool and controlled.
To enter a state of flow, we need to enjoy what we’re doing. Many experts suggest creating a vision board and focusing on it continuously, but this approach can take away from the enjoyment. If you only focus on the end goal and push through the task, you may not enjoy the process and even make it more painful.
Additionally, you may undermine your ability to lean back into the activity the next time you need to do it. Instead, it can be beneficial to attach the feeling of friction and effort to an internally generated feeling of pleasure from that activity. Instead, we should focus on genuinely enjoying the activity to feel pleasure in effort.
By telling yourself that the effort part is the good part and that you love it, you can access the pleasure of dopamine release inside of effort thus loving the activity. This can become reflexive for all types of effort and increase your baseline dopamine level.
However, spiking dopamine prior to or after engaging in effort can interfere with and prevent you from getting dopamine release from effort itself. To truly access the pleasure from effort, train to spike your dopamine ths pleasure from effort itself.
Consider this study of normal dopamine levels, vs dopamine depleted rats.
The first experiment was a breeze. In order to receive a treat, each rat only needed to press the lever once. Since no effort was required, this experiment established an essential condition: it showed that dopamine-deficient rats enjoyed the treats just as much as normal rats. This was crucial because if dopamine-deficient rats no longer liked the treats, the scientists would not be able to test how hard they would work for them.
When no effort was required, the dopamine-deprived rats pressed the lever as many times as the normal rats and consumed the treats they had earned. This result was expected since liking and enjoyment were not expected to change as a result of a dopamine alteration.
However, things changed when the rats had to work harder: when the required number of lever presses was increased from one to four, the normal rats pressed their levers nearly a thousand times over the course of 30 minutes. The dopamine-depleted rats were less motivated; they pressed the lever only about 600 times.
When the requirement was increased to sixteen presses, the normal rats produced nearly 2000 presses, while the dopamine-depleted rats barely increased their presses at all. They were getting only one-quarter of the number of treats, but they wouldn’t work harder.
Finally, the requirement was increased to sixty-four presses for a single treat. The normal rats managed about 2500 presses—more than one press per second for the entire 30 minutes. The dopamine-depleted rats didn’t increase their work at all. In fact, they pressed less than they had before. They simply gave up. Removing dopamine appeared to reduce a rat’s determination to work.
Another experiment confirmed that dopamine destruction affects determination, not liking. Hunger also plays a role in how much we crave food. Even though ice cream is always enjoyable, we tend to eat less of it after a big meal. Appetite is not related to work ethic; it simply depends on our hunger levels.
So the scientists added a new dimension to the experiment: they manipulated hunger.
In an experiment, rats were given a meal and then asked to press a lever. The rats that were full pressed the lever only half as much as the hungry rats, even when the requirement was increased. The full rats didn’t stop trying, they just didn’t want as many treats because they weren’t hungry.
The results reveal a subtle but vital distinction. The feeling of hunger (or the absence of hunger) changed how much the rats valued the treat, but it did not diminish their willingness to work. Hunger is an hear and now phenomenon, an immediate experience, not an anticipatory, dopamine-driven one. Manipulate hunger, or some other experience like hunger for the gym, and you affect the effort to work hard and achieve goals.
But it’s dopamine that makes the work possible at all: no dopamine, no effort. This points us towards an understanding of how dopamine affects the choices we make between working hard or taking the easy way.
Sometimes we want a healthy meal, and we’re willing to work hard to prepare it. Other times all we want to do is “veg out”—we’ll tear open a bag of chips in front of the TV, instead of working for even the few minutes it might take to make a healthy meal.
Consequently, the next step in the experiments was to introduce the element of choice. The scientists set up a cage with a treat and a bowl of lab chow. The lab chow was bland but freely available—no effort required.
To get the much tastier treat, a rat would have to make four lever presses—minimal effort, but effort nonetheless. The rats with normal dopamine went straight for the treats. They were willing to do a little bit of work to get something better. The dopamine-depleted rats, on the other hand, went over to the easy-access lab chow, they gave up on their health diet.
The ability to put forth effort is dopaminergic: without dopamine, there is no effort at all, we give up and go for convenience.
Serotonin and ultradian cycles
To avoid burnout and sleep difficulties caused by stress hormones, balance your pursuit of goals with contentment in the process and present moment.
Triggering the serotonin system through gratitude and appreciation at the end of a flow cycle, instead of relying solely on dopamine, can help you recover and learn more efficiently. In essence, toggle between dopamine for motivation and flow, and serotonin for balance and tranquility throughout the day.
To intentionally trigger serotonin, focus on what you have and what you’re grateful for. Thus coold off the dopamine circuits. Also, avoid activities that raise dopamine like reading or social media. Wait for 10 to 15 minutes using serotinin, by changing your physiology, such as standing strong and smiling. Continually connect to contentment and happiness about your progress in life.
I’ve learned that serotonin is like a muscle. Just as bicep curls can strengthen and enlarge your biceps, triggering serotonin throughout the day can strengthen serotonin production. When we don’t act and trigger serotonin, that “muscle” gets weaker, and we become less capable of releasing serotonin.
During the next ultradian cycle, increase dopamine, but not too high, just enough to get in the state of flow. Rinse and repeat this process throughout the day.
To improve my mood, I use techniques like smiling and deep breathing. These techniques can trigger a postive state, and studies have shown that just two minutes of smiling with a strong posture can help.
Additionally, having a clear plan for where I want to be in the future helps me feel happy and content. I create a wall map with the steps I need to take, and I check them off each day. I also use time boxes and a habit tracker to keep me on track.
If you’d like to learn more, book a zoom call here.
Mark “Effort” Iron