Hi. My name is Jo and I have a confession to make… I’m an addict. I’m addicted to fishing and I know I’m not alone. The more I talk to other similarly afflicted fishos, the more I realise that we’re potentially facing an epidemic of epically fantastic proportions! Do I need healing? HELL, NO! That’s how I got here! The truth is, I’m addicted to my natural therapy — recreational fishing.
I can tell you think I’m being metaphorical. But stick with me… whilst I am a marketer by trade, this piece is not an embellishment. Inspired by genuine intrigue, I’ve thrown myself into the world of endorphins and neurotransmitters to find an answer to a sneaking suspicion: Could fishing be making me feel high?
As someone who’s recently kicked the last of her mind-altering vices (I’m not counting coffee… don’t EVER threaten my coffee! But it’s over 500 days since an alcoholic bevvy wet my lips! Fact.), I have become acutely aware of where my good vibes come from, and fishing is high on my list. I get a buzz from deciding to go fishing, from planning the trips, from getting into the car, from being out fishing and from reminiscing about the fishing. There’s got to be something in that! But what exactly IS in that?
STIMULANTS of the NATURAL KIND
Our brains get natural jollies from a collection of feel-good chemicals and hormones (I’ve decided to lump these together into a colloquial group call “Feel-Goodies’), most notably endorphin hormones, and endocannabinoids, dopamine and serotonin chemicals. And we are so clever, we produce these ourselves!
WHAT ARE THEY?
The body’s natural painkillers, released by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in response to pain or stress. They are a group of peptide hormones that both relieve pain and create a general feeling of well-being.
The name of these hormones comes from the term “endogenous morphine.” “Endogenous” is a term referring to substances produced in our bodies. Morphine refers to the opioid painkiller whose actions they mimic.
About 20 different types of endorphins exist. The best studied of these is beta-endorphin, which is the one associated with the “runner’s high” — an extraordinary phenomenon I was fortunate enough to experience when I was a long-distance runner in my youth (totally recommended). We also release endorphins when we laugh, fall in love, have sex, and even eat a delicious meal.
ENDOCANNABINOIDS (Also called endogenous cannabinoids)
Molecules made by the human body, similar to cannabinoids. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex cell-signalling system identified in the early 1990s by researchers exploring THC, a well-known cannabinoid (compounds found in cannabis).
A type of neurotransmitter which plays a role in how we feel pleasure. It’s a large part of the unique human ability to think and plan. It helps us strive, focus, and find things interesting.
Another neurotransmitter that impacts every part of your body, from your emotions to your motor skills. Serotonin is considered a natural mood stabilizer. It’s the chemical that helps with sleeping, eating, and digesting, among many other things.
Simply spending time in nature enhances mood and stimulates release of Feel-Goodies. The amount of time spent in sunlight directly correlates with serotonin and dopamine synthesis too! No wonder our author is vibin’ after landing this nice flathead… just look at her surroundings!
Many of the party drugs that become problems in society are external sources of, or triggers for the release of these naturally occurring chemicals within our brains.
Boffins have been studying ways to encourage and increase the release of these chemicals and hormones for many, many years, with the findings forming the basis for mental health therapies across the globe. Luckily, this makes it easy to find information on the subject!
Stage one of my little investigation was to understand what triggers the production and/or release of my Feel-Goodies. Here’s what I’ve discovered, in a nutshell:
Exercise increases levels of dopamine and serotonin. Physical exercise is one of the best things we can do for our brain, boosting the production of new brain cells, slowing down brain cell aging, and improving the flow of nutrients to the brain.
Moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic exercise and strength training can also lead to a surge in endorphins and endocannabinoids.
Moderate intensity exercise is defined as activities such as a brisk walk, a gentle bike ride, or gardening… I reckon we can put most lure casting and freshwater fly fishing into this category. Vigorous intensity exercise includes activities like indoor cycling, playing soccer and running. I’d be inclined to include saltwater pelagic popping and game fishing (when it’s on) in this basket. This level of activity is also the most effective for raising endocannabinoid levels.
Research shows or brains reacts to novel experiences by releasing dopamine. You can naturally increase dopamine levels by seeking out new experiences. Makes the joy the author displayed when landing this sweet little trout understandable… it was her first using the euronymphing technique, which she finds incredibly challenging.
Vigorous exercise is known to stimulate release of endocannabinoids — molecules made by the human body, similar to cannabinoids. Let’s not get to excited though… think CBD rather than THC. Research suggests that our endocannabinoid system plays a key role in contributing towards homeostasis. Homeostasis refers to the maintenance of stability, or optimal conditions, within the body to promote proper functioning. So, we are looking for that “happy mellow” here 😉
As little as 20–30 minutes each day can help boost your endorphin levels… but we all know that our average fishing trip is a fair bit longer than that.
As an aside for those (like me) who are a little adverse to hard-core workouts, I have good news! Researchers have found that 30 minutes of running on a treadmill did not result in an increase in dopamine, but one of hour of yoga did. So, taking walks or doing gentle, no-impact exercises like yoga, tai chi, AND FISHING are all recognised as dopamine triggers!
Here’s another one: Sunlight increases the number of dopamine receptors and creates vitamin D which activates the genes that release dopamine. So, the great outdoors are genuinely “Great” for achieving the Feel-Goodies.
Endorphins fuel the fight, dopamine prolongs the high. This particular “rush” will never leave the author’s memory… “We were fishing in Groote Eylandt, NT… it was a glorious day! I had teased up a ripping Spaniard and wasa working hard to bring it back to the boat when everything changed. There was a thump on the line and then the fight went DEEP! It took a while to realise I’d downgraded to a big shark… and that my wire trace meant I was in for a long battle. Winning that fight was an enormous relief! The Feel-Goodies took a while to kick in ;)”
I absolutely LOVE this one: Our distant ancestors were in a constant struggle to survive. As a result, they got a dopamine surge every time they spotted a new patch of berries or a better fishing spot because this meant survival. So, the simple act of being “on a quest”, like trying to find where the fish are holding, is a Feel-Goodie trigger.
And here’s an insight into why I feel so damn good before, during and after fishing: endorphins are quickly released during a specific act, such as exercising, to help alleviate pain and stress. In contrast, dopamine is released slowly, thus providing the mood-boosting sensation you feel after the activity. So, we get an instant- and a slow burn-high!
Gratitude affects the brain’s reward system. It correlates with the release of dopamine and serotonin. Gratitude has been directly linked to increased happiness. In fishing, gratitude flows in every direction: to your skipper and netter if you’re fishing on a boat or as a team; to the fish for making it to the net when you’re fishing alone; and in general for the sustenance we receive when we take one for the table. We can even enhance the Feel-Goodies by consciously being grateful for the ability to fish and the stunning environments we fish in. Power-Up!
As a result of my investigations, I’ve come to a couple of conclusions… I firmly believe that recreational fishing can be used to stimulate the feel-goodies. Is there anyone prepared to disagree? AND I need to start getting more involved in pelagic popping and fighting game fish! The new disciplines will activate “the quest trigger” even greater levels of dopamine and the extra exertion will gift me with endocannabinoids, something I reckon I’d truly enjoy!
Ten Triggers for the Feel-Goodies (and how fishing fits in)
Regular exercise for at least 30 minutes each day improves one’s overall mood.
Now, I know the vast majority of us don’t get to fish every day, but when we do, we’re getting a LOT of Feel-Goodies in!
SPEND TIME IN NATURE
Researchers have found as little as five minutes outdoors in a natural setting can improve mood, increase motivation, and boost self-esteem. The amount of time spent in sunlight correlates with serotonin and dopamine synthesis.
Well, Hello Sunshine! Who doesn’t like fishing in good weather?
Diet can also influence one’s mental health.
Omega-3 fatty acids boost serotonin levels without the withdrawal. They help serotonin trigger nerve cell receptors, making transport easier. Many studies have shown that omega-3s help reduce depressive symptoms. You can find omega-3s in cold-water fish like salmon.
I don’t think I need to add to this.
Meditation is the practice of relaxed and focused contemplation. Evidence has shown that meditation increases the release of dopamine. It can relieve stress and create feelings of inner peace.
Hmmm… relaxed and focused contemplation? That’s a pretty accurate description of me fishing. What about you?
Scientific research has shown gratitude affects the brain’s reward system. It correlates with the release of dopamine and serotonin. Gratitude has been directly linked to increased happiness.
How grateful do you feel when you successfully land your fish? Speaking for myself, when I see mine slide into that net, I get an enormous rush that flutters straight from my core, through my shoulders, up my neck and out through my scalp! Gratitude, hit me again!
All essential oils come from plants. These oils often have medicinal properties. One study found that bergamot, lavender, and lemon essential oils are particularly therapeutic. Using your sense of smell, they prompt your brain to release serotonin and dopamine.
(OK… I can’t think of a way to tick this one off.)
When we achieve one of our goals, our brain releases dopamine. The brain finds this dopamine rush very rewarding and so seeks out more dopamine by working toward another goal.
Think PBs and bucket lists… Could this be where my fishing addiction comes from?
Researchers have examined the interaction between mood and memory. Simply put, people reliving sad memories produced less serotonin than folks dwelling on happy memories (no brainer).
As fishos, we LOVE reliving good memories — sharing photos, tips, successful techniques, telling fishing furphies, even stories about “the one that got away” are stimulating! Fishos are all over this one.
The brain reacts to novel experiences by releasing dopamine. You can naturally increase dopamine levels by seeking out new experiences. Any kind of experience will work. You can do something simple like a new hobby or recipe. Or you can try something grand like skydiving. The less familiar you are with the activity, the more likely your brain will reward you with dopamine.
Again… I need to take up pelagic popping and game fishing!
PROACTIVE MOOD ADJUSTMENT
Research indicates if you change your mood, you can affect serotonin synthesis in your brain. This implies mood and serotonin synthesis have a mutual influence on each other.
As discussed in my blog, the act of fishing stimulates the Feel-Goodies in a multitude of ways, and so improves are mood. Thus, the simple decision and act of going fishing to improve your mood is a double whammy!
I’d like to point out that the interwebs do commonly recommend a collection of activities other than fishing for those who want to increase their endorphin levels. These are exercising, having sex, eating dark chocolate, meditating, or any activity that makes you laugh and have a good time. Personally, I think they need to specify rec’ fishing in there.
As I come to the end of my blog, I’ve discovered that there’s a scientific explanation to why fishing makes me feel so high. It’s chemical. Cool.
But what about my tongue-in-cheek comment about being addicted to it? Is that even possible? Could fishing addiction explain the number of truly grumpy individuals we encountered during Covid Lockdown? Could they have been in fishing withdrawal?
I found this on the healthline.com website:
Can you be addicted to endorphins?
“While there is limited research on the topic, some people may become addicted to the “endorphin rush” caused by some activities.
“For example, thrill seekers may pursue dangerous activities to get a rush of adrenaline (i.e., epinephrine) and endorphins.
“Interestingly, one 2016 study including eight mountain climbers observed symptoms of withdrawal (e.g., disengagement, cravings to go climbing, mood swings, and irritability) after avoiding climbing for a period of time.
“Another example is self-harm, which leads to a rush of endorphins from hurting oneself to “feel” the release of emotional pain. A person may become addicted to the endorphin rush and continue to self-harm to obtain this feeling of emotional release.
“However, more research is needed to better understand endorphin addiction.”
Based on my own experience… I’m going with a simple “YES”