All of us, at some point in our life, feel down and frustrated, like we're being followed by a big black cloud. UCLA neuroscientist Alex Korb, author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, has some tips that might just help you brighten up your day. Time for a lesson in neuroscience.
1. Tame The Brain
Sometimes it doesn't feel like your brain wants you to be happy. If you’re experiencing guilt or shame, it may be because your brain’s trying — ineffectively — to activate its reward centre. Wait, what?
According to Korb, “Despite their differences, pride, shame, and guilt all activate similar neural circuits, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens. This explains why it can be so appealing to heap guilt and shame on ourselves — they're activating the brain's reward centre.“
So, how can we take positive control of this destructive little dance? Korb suggests asking yourself: “What am I grateful for?” His reasoning is chemical: “One powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.”
- Summary: Ask “What am I grateful for?” No answers? Doesn’t matter. Just searching helps.
2. Name and Shame
Okay, so you're still feeling a little glum. Time to get more specific. What, exactly, is the bad feeling you have? Anger? Stress? Sadness? Loneliness? Neuroscience says that just giving your darkness a name defuses it.
Author David Rock’s book Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long explains:
“To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system. The bottom line: by describing an emotion in just a word or two, helps reduce the emotion.”DID YOU KNOW? FBI negotiators use labelling to try and calm hostage negotiators, and it’s also an important tool in mindfulness.
- Summary: Label those negative emotions. Give it a name and your brain isn’t so bothered by it.
3. Be Decisive
Worried and anxious? One thing to try is making a decision about what’s got you worked up. It doesn’t even have to be the perfect decision; just a good one will do. As Korb notes: “Trying for the best, instead of good enough, brings too much emotional ventromedial prefrontal activity into the decision-making process. In contrast, recognising that good enough is good enough activates more dorsolateral prefrontal areas, which helps you feel more in control …” Korb: “Actively choosing caused changes in attention circuits and in how the participants felt about the action, and it increased rewarding dopamine activity. Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals — all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety. Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines. Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world — finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.”
- Summary: Decide. Go for “good enough” instead of “best decision ever made on Earth.”
4. The Healing Touch
Just to be clear, you should only be touching others who want to be touched. All right, then…
Got someone to hug? Go for it. Korb says “A hug, especially a long one, releases a neurotransmitter and hormone oxytocin, which reduces the reactivity of the amygdala.”
And if you have no one handy to touch, guess what? Massage has also been shown to be an effective way to get your oxytocin flowing, and it reduces stress hormones and increases your dopamine levels. Win win.
- Summary: Hugs, hugs, hugs. Don’t text — touch.
If you've enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about emotions and dealing with difficult situations then come and join us in August, when we'll be running a number of Virtual Workshops on how to make stress your friend - click here for details.