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Valentin Sawadski (he/him)
Valentin Sawadski (he/him)

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Brain Chemistry For Developers - What exactly is happening in your brain that makes you feel stressed, happy and tired at work?

This was originally released on the Mirror Blog. Visit theworkmirror.com for more resources on how to make time for what matters and stay healthy and productive at work.

Let's get one thing straight: I'm not a doctor. This is not medical advice. I'm just fascinated by how things work, including myself. So I researched into what exactly is happening in my brain that makes me feel stressed, happy and tired. So, here's what going on in my brain during a regular day at work.

Good Morning!

Usually I sleep very well and long enough. Which is fortunate for me, because a lot happens in your brain during sleep. For example, your body is running maintenance on your brain. As the neurons in your brain fire during the day, they slowly build up residual energy, ultimately creating a state in which it becomes increasingly hard to fire correctly. A good night's sleep helps to 'reset' the residual energy in your brain and it assumed to remover other by-products of your thinking as well.

This helps the brain to lay down new memories in your sleep and work better in the morning. This is the reason why Daniel Pink suggests that we should do analytical work in the morning. And Gary Keller inisists you do your most important one thing before 10 am.

I'm Feeling Stressed!

When you're stressed at work your brain reacts with the release of Adrenaline, Cortisol and Norepinephrine. They fasten your heartbeat, release extra energy to your muscles so that your body is ready to fight or flight. This body response however is targeted at 'immediate threats' that require split second decisions (Will I fight this guy or run from him?). Your 'primal part' of the brain, the amygdala, takes over and other parts of your brain in charge of higher-order tasks e.g. logic get sidelined.

In the office this has a very important consequence. Your work will suffer when you are stressed. You lack concentration, remembering and processing information is harder. It is especially important to remember this, when dealing with stressed co-workers. Your first job must be the help him deal with the emotions. Only once the bodily emotion has passed you can reach him/her with reason and logic. Otherwise, he/she will literally hear you, but not be able to understand you.

Finally, a Win!

Once the stressfull situation is resolved you start to feel better, happy even. This is because your brain is rewarding you. The reward system of your brain is quite complex, but most well known is the release of Dopamine. Depending on past experiences, different actions trigger the release of dopamine in your brain. For example from academic acheivements, winning in competitive sports or helping others.

An important thing to understand is that you can be 'addicted to rewards'. Some drugs for example manipulate the Dopamine levels in your brain. And in a work context this can be quite difficult to navigate. A lot of the things that we consider to be 'distractions' hook into the reward system of a brain. Every notification that you get when someone likes your post, tells your brain that you are popular and your brain then rewards you with Dopamine. If you don't get that Notification you start to get symptoms similar to withdrawal, which is one of the reasons why it's so hard to stay concentrated and not check social media.

A lot of productivity techniques therefore try to re-wire your reward system. The Pomodoro Technique for example aims at rewarding you every 25 minutes after you completed one pomodoro without interruptions. This is also why Test Driven Development feels so good. Every passed test is a little bit of extra Dopamine.

See you tomorrow!

At the end of the working day we get tired. As we still don't know much about why we sleep, we know that Melatonin and Adenosine play a role in our sleep process. Adenosine for example is the reason why we get slower by the end of the day. It gradually builds up during the day and slows down the activiy of neurons. As for Melatonin, it makes us feel 'drowsy' and is produced in accordance to external stimuly (e.g. light) and our 'body clock' (also known as the Circadian Rhythm).

For many of us one more substance plays an important role when it comes to feeling tired at work: Caffeine. Besides from making your heart beat faster, caffeine can block the Adenosine receptors. Hence, the 'awakening' effect of Caffeine.

Closing Notes

As I said, I'm not a doctor so I rely on the knowledge of others such as:

Sleep and Mornings

Stress

Reward and Success

If by accident I got some of my research wrong. Please reach out to me as I really want to understand what is going on in my head.

Discussion (4)

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meatboy profile image
Meat Boy

Great article Valentin. We live without thinking about all those processes in our heads. For me the big win in the brain game are nootropics (of course, firstly visit the doctor for consultation) and memo techniques like associating topics and information with each other, preparing notes like for teaching others (Feynman technique) and handwriting.

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vsaw profile image
Valentin Sawadski (he/him) Author

Thank you! I'm glad you like it. I definitely am super excited about learning more about the biology and psychology behind it :-)

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bbessa profile image
Bernardo Bessa

It would be interesting to consider another bullet more focused on the thinking process related to more complex tasks. Just an idea!
Anyway, cheers for the post.

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vsaw profile image
Valentin Sawadski (he/him) Author

In this Post I wanted to focus on emotions, as I believe we lack understanding and emotional intelligence.

But I might use this for another post in the future 🤔👍