Truth Bomb Tuesday: The brain is very strange and worrying is good for you.
Worrying makes you happy.
So does feeling guilty. And feeling shame.
They all make you a little ray of sunshine.
This might sound a bit counter-intuitive, but this is the latest word from the world of neuroscience.
Or specifically, from UCLA neuroscience researcher Alex Korb and his book, ‘The Upward Spiral’.
A lot of people with depression will tell you that it just doesn’t feel like their brain wants to be happy. They’ll fixate on problems and beat themselves up and make themselves miserable.
And this leads them to the brutal conclusion that they’ve got no one to blame for their misery but themselves.
It doesn’t feel like it should be this way. It all seems like there’s a glitch in the software – like a malfunction – and a lot of our pharmaceutical treatments are based on the belief that depression is a case of a ‘broken brain’.
But we now know that these negative behaviours – worrying, feeling guilt and shame – they activate the brain’s reward centres. They make us feel good.
From the book:
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 center.
But hang on. Why do I get a chemical reward if I worry about something, or look in the mirror and beat myself up for being ugly?
The answer to that is that these things are productive in the appropriate doses. Thinking and strategizing about your problems is a necessary part of improving your lot. Critical self-reflection is an essential part of personal growth.
That is, we are designed to worry. We are designed to reflect on our strengths and weaknesses.
Worrying can help calm the limbic system by increasing activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and decreasing activity in the amygdala. That might seem counterintuitive, but it just goes to show that if you’re feeling anxiety, doing something about it — even worrying — is better than doing nothing.
So that’s how we’re hard-wired. That’s the system we’ve got.
If that’s true, then the way I see it, there’s two ways that this system can go wrong.
The first is that we let worry replace action. When we worry, we get the chemical hit we’re looking for. That means we might do all the worrying, but never get around to doing the doing.
We can go around in loops, worrying about the same problem over and over, without ever getting around to doing anything about it.
After a while, that’s going to wear you down.
The second is that we just do these things – indulge in worry, guilt and shame – to excess. We get addicted to the easy chemical hit, and do them way more than we should.
The solution is obviously to do them less, but once you’re hooked, it’s hard to cut back.
To me, I think a better way to go is to bring them into balance by focusing on their positive counterparts.
That is, balance worry with action. Balance guilt with celebrating your successes. Balance shame with celebrating yourself.
Your brain isn’t meant to be without worry, guilt and shame. But it is meant to engage with these things in a balanced way.
So if you worry too much, act more. If you feel too much shame, celebrate yourself more.
Bit by bit, bring your brain back into balance.
Look, I don’t want to simplify depression. It’s a complex beast.
But if you do struggle with depression, maybe there’s comfort in knowing that you’re not broken, just a bit out of balance.
And maybe there’s a few tricks here that can help.