“EDSO”: The work–life chemistry balance

Career Manager By Deeb Eid, PharmD

Most of you learned about general chemistry and biology as first- or second-year students when you started college. As you continued your program, things started to pile up, such as homework, exams, getting a job, family, friends, hobbies, and much more. During this time, you learned about chemicals, both environmentally and internal, to the human body. In addition, you likely became busier with more homework, exams, working, and for many, there started to be less time for family, friends, hobbies, and social experiences. You might have been searching for some inspiration or motivation to keep moving forward. Perhaps you started making to-do lists to stay on track, relied on e-mails, texting, and social media to “stay in the loop,” and scavenged to find time to exercise or go for a run to stay healthy.

After becoming a New Practitioner, you moved on to jobs, residencies, fellowships, or potentially additional schooling. You couldn’t wait for a new beginning! Then, you started to realize that some of the same concepts started to show up again. While most of you started to have more “free-time,” you now had to work full-time, gained more responsibilities (paying off loans, buying cars, renting or buying houses, starting families, etc.), and started to have your time occupied again. Upon reflection, through all of the experiences, stresses, and pressures, you might have started to realize that there is one common denominator that will never stop: time.

Time continues to pass, you grow older, and inevitably you grow closer to running out of time. Although there is no method to slow down time, no time machines (yet), and few evidence-based methods to “develop better time management,” there are a few lessons you learned back in chemistry and biology to help better understand yourself, each other, and also to hopefully live more fulfilled lives with the amount of time you each have.

The balance lies in the chemistry
At some point in your education, you learned about four specific chemicals which collectively play a larger role in your everyday life and habits of “time management” than you may recall. These chemicals are Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin, and Oxytocin (EDSO):

1.     Endorphins release to help lessen depression and anxiety in response to pain or stress. Examples: a “runner’s high” or laughing so hard that your “body hurts.”

2.     Dopamine acts on inspiring you to move forward on actions toward your goals. It reinforces pleasure and can be described as that “heck, yes!” moment when you cross something off your “to-do” list. It’s released when you gamble, drink alcohol, use tobacco, use your cell phone (social media, games, etc.), and can lead to addicting habits.  

3.     Serotonin allows you to experience feelings of significance and importance. Participating in an organization or association and being part of the “culture,” along with reflecting on personal or group achievements, are examples.

4.     Oxytocin allows you to build relationships with others. Dropping by a colleague’s office to communicate versus sending an e-mail, handshakes, hugs, and giving gifts or thank you cards are examples of “oxytocin moments.”

While this is no magical formula to work–life balance, here are a few thought-provoking ideas in relation to consider these chemicals in your lives.

1.     Each of you have the power to partake in activities and build habits that release endorphins and dopamine. Building up to a consistent exercise routine, laughing often, and using your version of “to-do” lists may be tactics you are already employing or could think about. In addition, personal, yet tangible goal setting and conscious examination of your habits are all areas you can directly influence. Both of these chemicals can have a major impact on your work, but also help to ensure satisfying life activities.

2.     Both at work and outside, building relationships and feeling significant to yourself and others are vital. Serotonin and oxytocin rely more on interactions with others and might be more difficult to work on. Having lunch or dinner with co-workers, leaving an occasional sincere thank you card, or even joining an organization/club outside of pharmacy might help. It can be as simple as picking up the phone or stopping over a friend’s house instead of sending an e-mail or posting on social media.

Both areas take valuable time to build up, but according to the Harvard University Grant Study of Adult Development, 1938–2000 : “Our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health … The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”[1]

Win the tug-of-war battle
Overall, work activities and life outside of work often can push and pull you like a game of tug-of-war. Understanding the tendencies of human beings and the chemical effects of those can assist in selection and conscious examination of your habits and choices. If interested in learning more about these chemicals and their impact, check out the YouTube video “Why Leaders Eat Last” by Simon Sinek.