4 Things You Can Do to Cheer Up, According to A Neuroscientist

When we are stuck in feeling badly, the brain may be perpetuating the bad feelings through a misguided effort at a remedy, says UCLA neuroscientist Alex Korb, author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. He makes the surprising assertion that, from a neurobiological viewpoint, shame and guilt activate neural circuitry similar to that which is activated when we are proud of ourselves (the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens). He suggests that self-reproach, thus, is an attempt to activate the brain’s reward center and boost self-esteem. Similarly, he suggests, compulsive worry may be an attempt to reduce amygdaloid activity and stabilize the limbic system, the seat of emotions in the brain, by stimulating medial prefrontal cortical regions.

So how to counteract the brain’s tendency to make you feel worse in an effort to feel better? First, by cultivating gratitude, whcih activates the anterior cingulate cortex and boosts serotonin. Apparently, Korb says, you don’t even have to come up with something to be thankful for, which is sometimes not easy to do when everything seems dismal. Korb says that the act of remembering to be thankful may be enough.

Next, try and get very specific about the nature of your bad feelings. Labelling experiences activates your prefrontal cortex and reduces limbic arousal and the intensity of emotion. Labelling is apparently actively taught to FBI negotiators as a means of calming hostage-takers. It is also a central feature of mindfulness techniques.

Related to labelling is deciding about what it is that has you worked up and what you can do in response, and it should be a “good-enough” decision rather than striving for exactitude or perfection. There is an old saying that ‘the perect is the enemy of the good,’ and it appears to be true on a neurobiological level. Trying for the best draws emotional activation into the decision-making process, through ramping up ventromedial prefrontal cortex activity. In contrast, the good-enough decision activates more dorsolateral prefrontal (DLPF) areas, enhancing a sense of quiet control and increasing dopamine-based reward activity. Establishing intentions, creating goals and making decisions all recruit positive calming neural circuitry and calm the limbic system. This may be one basis for the saying that ‘We don’t just choose the things we like, we like the things we choose.’

Then there’s the value of human touch. As fMRI studies have shown, social exclusion and physical pain activate the same circuitry. On a neurobiological basis, alleviating isolation with touch stimulates the release of oxytocin and reduces activity in the amygdala, the anterior cingulate and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Source: Big Think