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The Neuroscience Behind Motivation

During challenging times like this, many people set goals for themselves—new projects—in order to improve their mental health and feel a sense of accomplishment and contentment. Finding and harnessing that sort of motivation isn’t always easy, of course, especially if we have underlying health concerns that might be affecting our energy levels.

For those of us dealing with depression or loss, or in recovery from an illness or serious injury, even finding the motivation to get out of bed can be a challenge, let alone doing a load of laundry, or making it to the gym for a workout. It’s certainly understandable to feel apathy about certain tasks, or to think of a “to-do list” as an insurmountable wall. By adjusting the way you think about goals, though, you can often help set yourself up for more success in reaching them.

What Dopamine Can Mean To You

Let’s look at the neuroscience behind motivation. According to U.S. News & World Report, roughly 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail. It’s quite normal to fall short of our highest goals, and we shouldn’t feel ashamed when this happens, especially during times of personal distress. Much of our motivation (or lack thereof), however, is determined not by the circumstances in our life, but by the neurotransmitters in our brains. These neurotransmitters send chemical messages (like text messages) to our brain and body, which then directly impact our motor skills, behaviors, memory, learning, sleep, mood, and more.

Dopamine is a critical neurotransmitter that plays a role in motivation. “It sends signals between neurons and plays a role in the brain’s reward system, telling us to take action, achieve something good, or avoid something bad,” says Angela Hardwick, MD, OhioHealth movement disorders neurologist.

But when you have low levels of dopamine, or even just apathy, you are less likely to feel motivated to achieve something. If you can tap into your dopamine domain and spark a message of positivity to the body, you can make incremental progress toward your goal.

The Impact of Dopamine and Parkinson’s Disease

Dr. Hardwick explains that in patients with Parkinson’s disease, the neurotransmitters that make dopamine are dying off, resulting in motor symptoms like achiness, tremors, and muscle cramping, and non-motor symptoms like mood, sleep, and digestive issues. “The medicine we prescribe for these patients is to make the living neurons work more efficiently,” she says.

Tips for Motivation Momentum

Set goals in one-month increments

Ask yourself or your care partner: what is your top goal for this month? By breaking your big goal into smaller increments, you have a more modest goal and a shorter timeframe to achieve it. Once you achieve one goal, you can build upon it. For example, if you want to exercise more, how much per day? How many days per week? You may start with getting 15 minutes of exercise, three days of the week, for one month. The following month, you may increase the number of minutes or the number of days of the week. As you achieve your goals, your brain and body will crave more achievement.

Record small accomplishments

Find a way to track and record your accomplishments daily. Tracking what you’ve accomplished will help motivate you to continue to work towards your goals.

Find an accountability partner

Share your goal and small accomplishments with an accountability partner. It may be a spouse, a co-worker, a friend, or just another person seeking accountability. They can help check-in and be that person to help you overcome the challenges or ruts you might face.

Increase your dopamine levels

There are also some ways that you can increase your dopamine levels naturally to help feed your motivation meter. “Exercise is a great way to increase dopamine levels,” says Dr. Hardwick, “You just have to find the strength and motivation to get started.” Other experts suggest taking a 10-minute nap or eating whole foods may help as well.

Pay Attention to Your Mood

If you can’t find the motivation to work towards a goal, pay attention to your mood, and talk to a friend or your physician about what could be going on. Southeastern Med offers a wide range of services that could be beneficial, from our Community Wellness and Spiritual Care departments to advanced Neurological tests and treatments.

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