Step 1: understanding my brain
Over the last week or so I have had a number of messages of love and support from people who have been reading my blog. I have tried to thank each person individually, but in case I missed you for some reason then please know that I am grateful.
It’s so great to be on the receiving end of all that kindness and compassion.
I just want everyone to know that I am feeling a lot better now. A big part of me knew it was just a dip and wasn’t going to last very long. And as the fog started to clear and my mood started to improve, I started asking myself why?
Why exactly do I go through these low periods? What causes them and is there is anything I can do to prevent them in the future?
[Cue some more science]
So I decided to learn a bit more about the brain. In particular, the parts of the brain that are responsible for emotions and how we process them. I have a plan in place and it goes a little something like this:
- Get to know my brain and how it works
- Get to know my thoughts and what controls them
- Figure out if I can change them, and how
What are emotions, anyway?
First of all, can anyone reading this actually define what emotions are?
No? Well me neither. I’ve looked around and the best definition that I have found so far is that emotions are a combination of thoughts, feelings and actions in response to an emotional stimulus.
Clear as mud, huh? But wait! lets not give up at the first hurdle. Let’s take a moment to think this through. We can start with a classic example – fear.
Lets say you’re on safari in South Africa and you come across a lion quite unexpectedly. First you think, “Oh gosh, that’s a lion.” Then you think “his teeth look bigger up close, I hope he doesn’t eat me”. Or something to that effect.
[I’m not sure my thoughts are quite so PG, but you get what I’m trying to say.]
Anyway, within a few milliseconds of coming across the lion, your start to experience the feeling of fear. Why? Because your brain does not want you to get eaten by the lion. So what do you do?
Well, first you probably poop your pants. Then you either run (flight), try and scare it off (fight) or, my all-time favourite, play dead (freeze). If you’re lucky you survive and the brain has succeeded in keeping you alive thanks to the emotion fear.
Thoughts, feelings and actions. Pretty cool, huh?
How are emotions different to mood?
So that’s emotions. But what about mood? Well that involves a bit of chemistry. The brain communicates through a number of different chemicals, which are called neurotransmitters. The three most famous ones are dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline (or norepinepherine if you’re American).
I figured I would employ my newly adopted puppy, Milo to help me explain neurotransmitters. First there’s dopamine. Dopamine is the pleasure chemical that is associated with the reward process. Whenever I rub Milo’s ears or give him a treat, he gets a surge of dopamine which gives him a happy, pleasurable feeling.
Serotonin, on the other hand, is the learning and memory chemical. We use it to process experiences and form memories. As Milo has gotten to know his new family, the seretonin in his brain is helping to familiarise him with his new family and home. Imbalances in seretonin are associated with depression, anger, anxiety and panic.
Finally there’s noradrenaline. It controls stress and anxiety. Anytime I leave Milo alone for more than a few seconds, he gets a surge of noradrenaline and starts to panic. There’s nothing worse than a stressed puppy. Aside from all the whining and barking, they start chewing on the remote control and pooping in your shoes.
So there you go. Turns out it’s all chemical really.
Too little dopamine or seretonin and you feel depressed. Too much noradrenaline and you feel anxious. I guess it comes as no surprise that the majority of medications that we use to treat depression and anxiety work by altering the levels of these neurotransmitters in the brain.
It’s all in the mind
By now, some of you are probably wondering what all this has to do with healthy living. Well, I would argue that it has everything to do with it. There are thousands of experts out there that can help you eat right and exercise more. But far fewer people talk about the mental barriers that people face when embarking on a journey like mine.
I know that I am not the only person out there that struggles with their mental health. And I know just how much our emotions and mood can impact our physical well-being. So I would argue that it has everything to do with healthy living.
Because how can we understand our mental health unless we understand the mind itself?
For example, which part of the brain controls emotions?
Answer: the limbic system. This includes the amygdala, which controls our emotional responses. It’s the part of the brain that experiences fear and is responsible for the fight/flight/freeze response that I mentioned earlier.
Then there is the hypothalamus, which controls the way in which the body responds to am emotional stimulus. Whenever you’re scared your heart rate increases, you start breathing heavier and you start sweating, right? That’s all thanks to the hypothalamus.
Finally there’s the hippocampus. This is the memory centre of the brain, and is actually really important in controlling your mood. Whenever you remember a happy memory, you get a rush of dopamine and your mood improves. But whenever you recall a sad memory, it has the opposite effect.
Left or right?
There’s more. The brain is split into two sides, which we call hemispheres. The left side of the brain is quite structured and logical. The right side is thought to be more plastic and abstract. It is where we get our sense of self as well as an awareness of the world around us.
Simply put, the left side of the brain is more focused on doing, and the right side is more focused on being and relationships. I know that’s a very crude way of distilling 20 years worth of interpesonal neurobiology, but I’m a fan of keeping things simple.
Now, some of you may have come across a quiz that tests whether or not you are left or right brained. Most likely on some reputable webiste that also wants to share the 3 top tips for losing belly fat. They work on the premise that left-brained people are supposed to be more logical and analytical, whereas right-siders are meant to be more creative and artistic.
A word of warning. This is complete utter crap. However, there is a decent amount of evidence that people who suffer from mental health issues are more left-hand dominant in our everyday lives. In other words, we focus more on doing than feeling and just being. The left side of our brain is focused on keeping us alive and safe. We need the left side!
The problem is that the left side of the brain is also very critical. It can be loud and demanding. It is logical and lacks compassion and kindness. And it responds to fear and threat and thrives on stress hormones such as cortisol and noradrenaline. All very necessary but not ideal when left in charge.
The right side of the brain is where we find compassion and kindness. It is our gentler, more reasonable side, and in an ideal world it is in charge. That way the decisions we make are put in to the context of the world around us and our own core beliefs and values.
When we engage the right side of our brain we are more in touch with ourselves, how we feel and who we are as an individual. And it turns out that this is the key to changing the way you think and feel and how your respond to an emotional stimulus.
So there you go, a whirlwind journey through the field of neurobiology. Want to find out more? Join me this time next week for part 2, when I start to explore why my thoughts have a tendency to take a dark turn and what that has to do with eating.
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