while drugs collect most of the attention when it comes to psychoactive effects, there are a range of ways people can seek their highs. sex, for example, triggers the release of oxytocin, resulting in a high that’s unique from those you’d get from exercising, skydiving, or smoking weed. similar – but different.
in general, you can break highs up into two categories – the factors that cause them act either on catecholamines—hormones, such as adrenaline + dopamine, or on your body’s endocannabinoid system, which creates restorative brain chemicals.
below we’ve listed how the psychologic and physiologic effects of various forces can compare.
s u g a r
short-term impact: releases dopamine – a pleasure hormone – which will give you a burst of energy, also known as a sugar high. and whether we like it or not, or try to ignore its inevitability, thirty minutes later, our old fiend, fatigue comes a’knockin’.
long-term impact: any pleasure-based activity can lead you to come back for more, as our brains seek to repeat the reward. while addiction sets in, the duller this high becomes – then prompting an increasing dose.
w e e d
short-term impact: thc, the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana, attaches to molecules called cannabinoid receptors that normally react to natural thc-like chemicals (endocannabinoids) in your brain. its pain-relieving powers bring with it happiness + relaxation, but as it is not a naturally-occurring compound, thc interferes with normal brain functioning – this is: impairing concentration + coordination, a skewed perception of time + prior commitments.
long-term impact: it is believed that thc alters the ability to form new memories + react quickly with long-term use, however, a 2016 study found that for every five ‘marijuana years’ (everyday use), people remember only one fewer word in a list of fifteen, compared to non-users. other studies show that marijuana does impair memory, learning + cognition, but only while you’re high, but not after the high has subsided.
s t r e s s
short-term impact: adrenaline + norepinephrine are pumped from your adrenal glands in response to stress. this stress is not necessarily ‘bad stress’, but also the stress you’d feel at the beginning of a race, the moment before you skydive, or while riding a wave. this rush can help you overcome fears, block out pain, redirect blood toward your muscles + increase strength, sharpen your focus + relax your airways to bring in more oxygen. in the heat of the moment, though, you might overwork yourself or fail to comprehensively think. these two hormones can also leave you exhausted + depleted – which is why, after a stressful day or activity, you may feel on the semi-depressed side.
long-term impact: acute adrenaline surges wash out of your body fairly quickly, however, chronic surges — which can be brought about by excess caffeine or lack of sleep — can turn into anxiety as well as a burnout.
e x e r c i s i n g
short-term impact: once you’re a few minutes in, moving causes feel-good endorphins + endocannabinoids to flood your brain, creating a natural, substance-free high. thanks to the pain-relieving perks, you’re able to push through the harder exercises + the more intense moments. once finised, you’re left feeling euphoric + less anxious.
long-term impact: by altering the levels of brain chemicals that regulate mood, regular cardiovascular + strengthening exercise help to reduce the risk of/improve depressive symptoms (+ may even keep them at bay) suggesting protective effects of movement. allowing time for recovery + repair will result in you being able to reap the best rewards.
l o v e
short-term impact: produced in the hypothalamus, oxytocin is released in response to hugging, having sex, giving birth, or petting a dog. it can reduce your body’s stress response, improve mood, allow for honest connections + trust.
long-term impact: one study found that old mice injected with oxytocin were able to regenerate more muscle fibres, implying that the hormone has rejuvenating + restorative effects. another study suggested that humans with pets / happily married live longer. so it’s a spouse or a dog. same thing apparently.
c o u r a g e
courage is about managing your fear. it can be nurtured, practised + strengthened until you have the ability to face your fears with complete intent. when we are effected by fear, we act differently. the logical, calm brain can’t seem to rationalise – adrenaline + norepinephrine have taken over. studies have shown that a certain part of the subconscious brain activates when we engage in courageous acts. this section, called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, when well exercised, is key to what people see as natural courage. courage is not a lack of fear – it is the readiness to act in the face of fear. it is not eliminated. it is managed.