How to… Stay Motivated

With so much to do and so little time to do it in, staying engaged, energised and continually involved in all that stuff we’re supposed to do can wear us down. When there is so much to do that we can barely do anything, it’s time to take a look at what motivation means and how we can gather it intelligently. So yes, we can get things done, but we can also appreciate the self-care we need and how that feeds energy and motivation back into our systems.

Definitions of motivation range from simply being interested in something to having continual energy, desire and to keep up interest and commitment to a task or role – in pursuit of a goal. It’s that latter description that can keep us in such high expectation for our self that ultimately, we wear down the very resources needed to get so much done!

Demands in the shape of any kind of stress or simply just lots to do with little rest and recovery, can have a naturally demotivating effect. At any given time, our nervous system setting and therefore the tone we are in – from total shut-down through to complete agitation – determines how keen or reluctant we can feel to get something done. When we are in a more energetic, excitory tone (stimulated or stressed) then we are releasing excitory neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) like dopamine, adrenaline and serotonin. When we are in a slump or more consciously resting, we are circulating the more inhibitory, calming ones like acetylcholine and GABA.

This can be an exquisite balance where we work, then rest and one smoothly moves into the other, for instance more energised in the morning when the motivating stress hormone cortisol is naturally high and then coming to a quieter outlook in the evening when its levels drop to move us towards sleep. Thus we can keep up motivation because we are recovering in between, but if we plough on through – don’t take breaks, ignore the signs we need a day-off – then it’s like not recharging our phone. Of course the battery runs down.

This doesn’t just affect the energy we have to do things, but the want, the motivation to start it, continue and get to the end. When we’re constantly in ‘up’, doing mode we are using up those motivating, excitory neurotransmitters and this can leave them depleted.

The effects of low dopamine

Low dopamine levels are implicated in addictions of all kinds, depression, ADHD, Parkinson’s, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, fibromyalgia and other conditions. One definition of depression is “anger without motivation”, a kind of locked-in stress state where we can’t even muster the resources to express our frustration fully, and so it can turn inward. Although low serotonin is often most associated with depression, more research is turning towards low dopamine as the cause. This may be one explanation for the poor efficacy of SSRI anti-depressant drugs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) – shown to be as little as 40% effective.

Low dopamine symptoms include:

  • Low motivation
  • Difficulty getting going in the morning
  • Listless
  • Apathetic
  • Difficulty feeling joy, inability to experience pleasure
  • Low concentration
  • Low mood
  • Low libido
  • Sleep issues
  • Difficulty connecting with others
  • Sugar and caffeine cravings
  • Poor stress handline
  • Difficulty losing weight
Dopamine and addictions

Alongside serotonin (discussed in my How to Resist Cravings blog), oxytocin and beta-endorphins, dopamine provides us with a feel-good factor that is both motivating and part of our natural reward system. If we do something that raises the chances of survival of our species, we get rewarded with a hit of these substances, so we keep doing it. Best case scenario this is healthy food, healthy relationship and sex, intimacy and touch, joy, laughter and exercise. When levels of these are low in life or if we are depleted in those happy brain chemicals, we can seek that same reward surge in different ways. Anything to excess can give us the hit we crave and cannot muster internally; shopping, gambling, sex, internet use, sex, drugs, alcohol and anything that gives us a sense of power.

Low dopamine levels also interrupt our natural imperative to move. We may intend to or want to exercise, but we just don’t seem to be able to, which can leave us berating ourselves that we’re lazy or don’t have enough willpower, when actually we may be simply stress-tired. For our ancestors, it was a dopamine hit that got them going to find new food, but with our abundant lives and psycho-social stresses, these natural motivations can become confused.

Addiction in place of natural motivation

All addicting substances, including sugar, create an immediate surge of dopamine, so if we have turned to them for stress relief before, our brains learn that it will have this self-medicating effect again and set up a craving association response. Dopamine is released even when we anticipate a substance, so wanting and obtaining is part of the motivation – hence we might walk to the late-night shop for that chocolate hit!

The same cycle happens with the neurotransmitter serotonin, which creates stimulation and euphoric mood immediately after a drink, but a significant drop occurs soon after, leaving us wanting to recreate that ‘high’ with the next drink or the association with needing alcohol to ‘have a good time’. This is especially true if we tend to low serotonin levels (with depressive tendencies or SAD) which also prompts sugar cravings as insulin (the hormone produced to transport sugar) takes the building blocks for serotonin into the brain. If we also don’t have enough ‘natural joy’ in our lives (laughter, hugs, comfort, support, socialisation, music, exercise) we may be more likely to turn to alcohol or other sugar sources to prop us up and this can become a long-term conditioned pattern and coping strategy in the face of demotivation.

Ways to increase dopamine naturally:

  • Get out into nature as often as you can, even sit in a garden or walk through a park
  • Laugh with good friends and people you trust as often as possible; we thrive on being ‘in relation’ with others
  • If you can’t laugh with others, watch a favourite comedy programme or comedian
  • Exercise in ways you enjoy – yoga, games, swimming, walking – all reward us for moving and still allow the space to notice when we might be tiring out a fatigued system
  • Listen to music and sing along as often as possible!
  • Kirtan and mantra incorporate sound in yoga practices and have shown to increase levels of the chemicals that allow us to feel joy.
Brains need protein

Protein foods are made up of amino acids ‘building blocks’; of which 8 are essential to humans, meaning they need to be obtained daily through diet – we cannot produce them in the body. Others are deemed ‘conditionally essential’ meaning that we have the capacity to create them from others, but under stress these conversions may become impaired. This is true for glutamine from which we make GABA and tyrosine from which we make dopamine. Tryptophan (from which we make serotonin) is found in fairly low amounts in protein foods.

Amino acids are precursors to protein hormones, body structures, genetic material and detoxification processes as well as certain neurotransmitters – we use them up at a rate of knots when all of the systems are heightened by stress. When we have too little dietary protein we can struggle to regulate blood sugar, feel motivated and those with anxiety even more so. Beyond meat, fish and eggs, vegetarian sources are nuts, seeds, dairy, goats’ and sheeps’ cheese, whey protein, beans and ‘bulkier’ stalk vegetables like asparagus, broccoli and leaves.

Brains need fats

Our brains are made up of around 60% fat, with a high profile of the omega 3 fatty acids (oils) eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) needed for serotonin and dopamine levels. They also increase cerebral (brain) circulation and support neuronal growth in the frontal cortex of the brain, where we process conscious thought, analyse and work things out.

Cravings fats when we are stressed and then satisfying this with healthy sources rather than the cakes and pastries is known to support brain chemistry without setting up cycles of addiction seen with sugar cravings. Here are best choice healthy fats to nourish brain chemistry and motivation:

  • Omega 3 oils from oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, wild salmon and trout as well as eggs and meat from grass (not grain) fed free range animals. Eat walnuts, pumpkin seeds and flax for vegetarian sources but these need conversion (may be impaired in those with anxiety) and an algae DHA supplement may be needed, such as Solgar Vegetarian DHA (link here).
  • Monounsaturated Fatty Acids or MUFAs from avocados, almonds olives and olive oil, nuts, seeds should be included wherever possible to also supply fat-soluble antioxidants that protect a constantly oxidising nervous system from damage.
  • Vegans should include coconut, peanuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds and pine nuts for saturated fats vital for cell communications.
  • Unrefined, cold-pressed oils such as olive, flax and sesame oil for dressings.
  • Coconut oil, olive oil or butter to cook with for less oxidative damage to nervous tissue.
Other nutritional support:
  • Consider a good multivitamin with B Complex vitamins and magnesium for energy and neurotransmitter production. A good example is Lamberts Multi-Guard (link here), there is also a Lamberts Multi-Guard Control (link here) – a version with cinnamon for blood sugar levels if low motivation has you using sugar to prop you up.
  • The herb Gingko Biloba has shown to raise dopamine levels and has been traditionally used for stress, circulation and memory issues; try Viridian Ginkgo Biloba Leaf Extract (link here).
  • Pukka Three Turmeric tea (link here) provides good levels of the compound curcumin that has shown to support dopamine levels.
Conscious rest for motivation

One of the key components of motivation is the ability to recognise when we’re tired, listen to those signals and follow them through to the rest and recovery that we need. In this way, we can learn to trust that energy has natural ebbs and flows, so we don’t need to jack it up when things go into a lull, but rather let ourselves drop into a lower setting when we need to gather resources back up for rejuvenation. If we can do this consciously, we can also tune into when we are doing too much and particularly in relation to our yoga practice, that we don’t just keep treading the same path regardless of our energetic and emotional needs.

Sometimes finding motivation isn’t about what we can do, but rather how we can learn the fine art of not doing. Permeating a stronger physical practice with periods of slowing down, catching up with the breath and meditative space means that we’re not just imposing our will upon our bodies, but listening and responding to our true needs.

Belly Circling

Belly circling wakes up the whole spine from the base up into the brain stem where the neck inserts into the skull, waking up our brain without agitating. Sit in any comfortable position, spend a few moments settling into your seat and into awareness of your breath in your body. Then begin to circle from the hips and belly, so that you feel the motion from there and the shoulders don’t need to get involved in the movement. As you circle forward, try not to lead with the chin and retain space at the base of the skull.

Reverse the direction, paying attention to the difference of tone and feeling through the belly and linked tissues. If you also rub the roof of your mouth with your tongue, you will wake up nerve endings that reach up into the brain for alertness. Sit for some moments after, feeling the energy assimilate through your body with your breath.

Energising through strong legs and twists

A few simple, stronger poses can create the space and energy we need to awaken our mind-body. We don’t need to do oceans of dynamic postures when feeling drained, being attached to a ‘more is better’ attitude is what can move us towards chronic stress in life; taking that into our yoga practice is continuing the mind patterns that can create exhaustion and fatigue. Recognising and letting go of these samskaras – as these ingrained, conditioned habits are referred to in yoga – is an integral part of a practice lead by awareness, not just physical prowess.

These simple poses can energise through opening long lines through body tissues, including twisting; come through down-face dog and tadasana (mountain pose) between to come to a neutral spine and evenness around the central axis to gather back in and feel the ripples of the practice.

Spend some time before on all fours, simply feeling grounded through all parts that meet the earth and from there, moving and exploring in any way that feels freeing to your body tissues and mind.

  • Ashva Sanchalanasana (Horse pose) – From down-face dog, step the right foot between the hands by inhaling and on the exhale, gather in the right hip and draw the knee into the chest and forward – come to all fours and lift the foot forward if you need. Have the feet places parallel to the sides of the mat and hip-width apart. Come up onto the fingertips to lift up through the chest and lengthen all the way from the back heel to the crown of the head. These lunge poses can be practice with knee down too, supporting with a blanket if needed.
  • Parivrtta Anjaneyasana 1 (Twisted crescent pose) – Keeping the back heel pointing up to the sky and lift the left arm to rotate the belly upwards, whilst the left thigh keeps rotating inwards. Bring the right hand onto a block if you need more height. Come back through Horse pose above.
  • Parivrtta Anjaneyasana 2 (Twisted crescent pose) – from the same side, Keep the left fingers to the floor (on block if needed) and this time revolve the belly to the right, keeping good contact with the ball of the right big toe to stabilise the right thigh. Lengthen the back and sides of the neck. From Horse pose, come back to Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downwards-facing dog pose) and repeat with left leg forward.
  • Come down to child pose, noticing your recovery mechanisms coming in after coming to rest following energy creation. Let yourself rest here, focusing on release through the exhalation to feel softening through the thighs and lower back.
Restorative twist

Twists create squeeze and movement through organs, helping to activate and nourish nervous system and hormone communication. When restorative (fully supported), they allow recovery through tissues and our ability to regulate heart rhythms, circulation and blood pressure; all of which influence our energy and motivation.

Use a bolster or blocks and a blanket (or stack of towels), sit with knees folded away from the lift. Lift up through the spine and twist towards it, laying your torso on to feel fully supported and so you can relax both forearms fully to the ground, finding a position where your shoulder feel able to drop. You can stay on each side for up to 10 minutes, focussing on your breath and the felt experience of each moment.

Savasana – with support

Spending an effective amount of time in savasana (corpse pose) is the route to the more physical aspects of our practice assimilate and have most benefit. A regular 10 minute time spent, after a sequence or simply as a stand-alone practice has amazing restorative benefits. Supporting a bend in the knees with a bolster or rolled blanket allows a softness in the lower back that takes out even more of the tension that can steal our motivation. Focussing on feeling ‘light’ on the inhalation and ‘heavy’ on the exhalation, helps find the balance between energy and release that allows easier movement through life.


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