Feeling Down? How to Cure the Blues

alex atkins bookshelf cultureEver have one of those days when you are feeling down, feeling blue — and you want to snap out of it, but you don’t know what to do? Before you reach for age-old, but risky quick remedies like alcohol or drugs, you should turn to the most powerful and effective pharmaceutical — your brain. According to Alex Korb, a neuroscience researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, thinking the right thoughts is the best medicine for curing the blues. Here are five things you can do to harness the healing and uplifting power of the miraculous human brain — and unlike alcohol and drugs, they are absolutely free:

1. Ask yourself one important questions: who or what are you grateful for? Korb notes that feelings of pride and its opposite — shame and guilt — actually activate the same neural circuits in the brain (specifically, the amygdala, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, insula, and nucleus accumbent if you want to get technical). The antidote is to shift your thinking from shame or guilt to gratitude. Korb states that gratitude and thinking positively activates the parts of the brain that produce the feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Korb adds: “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.”

2. It is important not to suppress your emotions, but rather actively identify and label your emotions. Simply labeling an emotion in a word or two helps us to reduce that emotion. Leadership coach David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, elaborates: “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”

3. Make a decision about something in your life — a goal, an event, a personal or work-related situation. The decision does not have to be a perfect solution, it just has to be “good enough.” In short, making a decision boosts levels of dopamine, producing pleasure. “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,” states Korb. “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.”

4. Don’t hesitate to ask for a hug. Studies show that emotional pain is experienced just as if it were physical pain in your brain; that is to say, when a couple breaks up, for example, that emotional pain is equivalent to the pain of a broken arm. The antidote to that pain is oxytocin — obtained through touching and hugs. Korb explains: “One of the primary ways to release oxytocin is through touching. Obviously, it’s not always appropriate to touch most people [in a workplace context], but small touches like handshakes and pats on the back are usually okay… In addition, holding hands with someone can help comfort you and your brain through painful situations… A hug, especially a long one, releases a neurotransmitter and hormone oxytocin, which reduces the reactivity of the amygdala.” The ultimate touching experience is a massage, which boasts serotonin and dopamine, as well as decreasing stress hormones.

5. Reminisce and get nostalgic. The literal meaning of nostalgia is the suffering caused by the yearning to return to a person’s place of origin. In 2006, psychologist Tim Wildschut, Constantine Sedikides (University of Southampton), and Jamie Arndt (University of Missouri) conducted a fascinating study focused on nostalgia. Even though nostalgic events, that define the meaning of a person’s life, contain negative elements (emotional pain, disappointments, etc.), people tend to filter them out and focus on a narrative that reflects a positive or triumphant outcome. Wildschut and his colleagues found that nostalgia strengthens social bonds, increases positive self-regard, and generates good feelings.

Read related posts: How to Be Happy
15 Things You Should Give Up to Be Happy
Experiencing Happiness in Life
The Difference Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life

The Paradox of the American Dream
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks

For further reading: The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by Alex Korb
Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long
by David Rock
Emotional Intelligence by Travis Bradberry
The Whole Brain Business Book: Unlocking the Power of Whole Brain Thinking in Organizations, Teams, and Individuals by Ned Herrmann
How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker

The Human Brain Book by Rita Carter
Brain: The Complete Mind: How it Develops, How it Works, and How to Keep it Sharp by Michael Sweeney


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