1. The most important question to ask when you feel down
Sometimes it doesn’t feel like your brain wants you to be happy. You may feel guilty or shameful. Why?
Believe it or not, guilt and shame activate the brain’s reward center.
And you worry a lot too. Why? In the short term, worrying makes your brain feel a little better — at least you’re doing something about your problems.
But guilt, shame and worry are horrible long-term solutions. So what do neuroscientists say you should do? Ask yourself this question:
What am I grateful for?
Yeah, gratitude is awesome… but does it really affect your brain at the biological level? Yup.
You know what the antidepressant Wellbutrin does? Boosts the neurotransmitter dopamine. So does gratitude. The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable. Know what Prozac does? Boosts the neurotransmitter serotonin. So does gratitude. 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. I know, sometimes life lands a really mean punch in the gut and it feels like there’s nothing to be grateful for. Guess what? Doesn’t matter. You don’t have to find anything. It’s the searching that counts.
It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.
And gratitude doesn’t just make your brain happy — it can also create a positive feedback loop in your relationships. So express that gratitude to the people you care about.
But what happens when bad feelings completely overtake you? When you’re really in the dumps and don’t even know how to deal with it? There’s an easy answer…
2. Label negative feelings
You feel awful. Okay, give that awfulness a name. Sad? Anxious? Angry?
Boom. It’s that simple. Sound stupid? Your noggin disagrees.
3. Make that decision
Ever make a decision and then your brain finally feels at rest? That’s no random occurrence.
Brain science shows that making decisions reduces worry and anxiety — as well as helping you solve problems.
4. Touch people
No, not indiscriminately; that can get you in a lot of trouble.
But we need to feel love and acceptance from others. When we don’t it’s painful. And I don’t mean “awkward” or “disappointing.” I mean actually painful.
Neuroscientists did a study where people played a ball-tossing video game. The other players tossed the ball to you and you tossed it back to them. Actually, there were no other players; that was all done by the computer program.
But the subjects were told the characters were controlled by real people. So what happened when the “other players” stopped playing nice and didn’t share the ball?
Subjects’ brains responded the same way as if they experienced physical pain. Rejection doesn’t just hurt like a broken heart; your brain feels it like a broken leg.
So hug someone today. And do not accept little, quick hugs. No, no, no. Tell them your neuroscientist recommended long hugs.