…. a season of Joy?
The song says this is the most wonderful time of the year, and for so many children, it is…but for others, not so much. It’s also a treasured time for many adults…but not all. And while there’s no magic way to go through some step-by-step plan to snap from sorrow to happiness, there are some purposeful things you really can do to get your brain in a happier mode over time.
Because although it feels like happiness and sadness come from your heart, they’re actually manufactured in your brain. And neuroscientists have done some remarkable work to get to the bottom of what makes or breaks our feelings of contentment, happiness, emotional warmth, and feeling loved.
There really are things you can do!
But if being happy doesn’t come naturally, you can regularly take some simple steps to train your brain into a happier, more upbeat outlook. And it’s like going to the gym. If you go once a year…the results aren’t so impressive, right? On the other hand, if you go every day all year long … you’ll have a toned, well-developed body that responds instantly to any demand.
Emotions are like that, too. If you’re a 97-pound weakling in the emotional part of yourself, every wind that comes along can knock you down. But, build your emotional strength and resilience, and you can stand and command in the face of all kinds of adversity with grace, patience, and confidence.
Weight-lifting for emotional resilience
A book by Alex Korb, neuroscience researcher at UCLA, entitled The Upward Spiral, reveals all sorts of eye-opening activity that happens in the brain in response to sadness, guilt, and rejection…and shows how you can turn those negative feelings on their ear by simple emotional strength-building actions.
You know what it’s like to feel guilty or ashamed…these are terrible feelings and make it seem impossible to be happy again. Pride is an emotion you may use to try to overwhelm the feelings of guilt and shame, but interestingly, they all stimulate activity in specific parts of the brain: the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, insula and the nucleus accumbens.
There’s a lot of scientific jargon there, but these structures are as important to your emotional life as your heart, kidneys, and lungs are for your physical life.
Turns out that worrying, which is a natural reaction to guilt and shame, actually decreases activity in the amygdala, and is calming. (You’re tricking your brain into thinking you’re at least doing something about the problem.) Sounds crazy, because worrying does other things like stir up ulcers, so it’s not really a good solution.
Play the Glad Game
However, there is something that is:
When you feel down, ashamed, guilty, or fearful, when you’re worrying a hole in it…Stop.
Play Pollyanna’s Glad Game. Remember the old Walt Disney movie Pollyanna? A child whose missionary parents had died was sent to her aunt’s to live. She had a way of turning frowns to smiles by following the principles her parents had taught her. Like counting her blessings when she was down.
Ask yourself what you’re grateful for. Think hard. Just because you’re down, or maybe even devastated by one of life’s worst losses, there is always something to be grateful for. What’s important is that you search for it. It could be that you have a warm place to live…or if you don’t, it might be a friend you have, or that you’re healthy.
Or if you’re sick … it might be that you have good care, or that you simply have a beating heart.
But think about it, and search for it. Because gratitude increases neurotransmitters in your brain like serotonin and dopamine. And those neurotransmitters help signals move through your brain, to lighten your mood and to help you feel more sociable.
And here’s another thing… expressing gratitude to others in your life, helps them feel grateful to you, too. And that stimulates more mutual gratitude … and those relationships slowly become stronger.
So, bottom line, the search for things you can be grateful for actually helps your brain spiral upwards, as the title of Korb’s book describes. Do it, everyday and often, to train your brain to be happier and stronger.
But I’m just too angry…
Now, let’s be realistic. Sometimes you feel so beaten down, so hopeless, so angry, or so scared, that you can’t – just can’t – think of something you’re grateful for. The best thing to do when that happens? Just name names.
If you feel angry…? Say, “I’m angry.” If you’re scared or worried…? Say so. Best to not go into a diatribe about it, as that can backfire. But if you just call it what it is, simply expressing the emotion you’re feeling reduces the activity in your amygdala and actually helps you feel some relief.
So call it what it is. Then move on.
Another stab at the gratitude exercise might also be more effective right about now. And remember…this is an exercise regimen to build a brain that’s better at happiness so keep up the good work!
Get off the fence and MAKE that decision
Now, let’s talk about those times when something is eating at you in the back of your mind. You know that gnawing… and it’s so subtle but unsettling…. You have to consciously stop and ask yourself, “what’s bugging me??”
It just could be a decision you NEED to face and MAKE. Staying on the fence about it is building anxiety, and anxiety creates all sorts of havoc in your emotions. It can make you irritable, withdrawn, distracted.
But making the decision does good things in your prefrontal cortex. And that calms down worry and anxiety, helping you to feel more relaxed wellbeing.
So you need to get that decision settled.
Here’s a clue that might help you get there. Decisions are sometimes choices that aren’t easy. Maybe there’s no perfect choice. At those times, neuroscientists say that a “good enough” decision is better than no decision. Far better.
When you accept that a good enough decision is acceptable, you release yourself from the stress of striving for perfection, and avoid activating the ventromedial segment of your brain which heightens your stress.
Instead, accepting good enough switches on the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex regions, and you feel more in control…which is far more comfortable.
And…you know what? Good enough is almost always good enough. Things have a way of just working out, especially if you’re at peace and not tormented.
Neuroscience says that actively choosing…or making the decision…increases the feelings of reward from dopamine activity.
Just do it.
You deserve the break.
Now, you’ve established some great habits:
- like making a list of all the things you’re grateful for, building an attitude of gratitude
- Naming names, calling out those emotions that feel awful, and taking the wraps off ‘em
- Make that decision, and get out of limbo
And you know what…? People who are naturally upbeat and happy tend to do all these things instinctively. Ever noticed that?
Hugs for Christmas cheer and Hanukkah happiness
And now the best of all, and my personal favorite, is to give and receive love with touch. Hand holding, shaking hands, hugs and squeezes, and pats on the back.
In fact, research shows that 5 hugs/day for 4 weeks builds happiness in a measurable way.
Physical touch releases oxytocin, which is a neurotransmitter that gives a sense of wellbeing. This is the same neurotransmitter that’s released in the mother when she’s nursing her baby. It gives the mother a sense of wellbeing along with a stronger bond to her infant.
Holding hands and hugging are some of the most therapeutic methods of touch, because that oxytocin reduces reactivity in the amygdala.
So get out there and hug, dear friend. Do it for science. And do it for your own happiness. And do it all year round for next year’s Christmas cheer and Hanukkah happiness. The more the better and for as long as possible!
Take the findings of neuroscience researchers…and use them to YOUR advantage
“[Optimism] is not about providing a recipe for self-deception. The world can be a horrible, cruel place, and at the same time it can be wonderful and abundant. These are both truths. There is not a halfway point; there is only choosing which truth to put in your personal foreground.”
― Sonja Lyubomirsky,
And if you’ve been suffering from symptoms of severe major depression, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, OCD, or PTSD, and you’ve tried at least two forms of medication or other therapy, call us. Innovative Psychiatry specializes in advanced treatment options that can be provided in cooperation with your current psychiatrist.
Help us help you by calling us for an appointment. We can determine if you’re a candidate for IV ketamine treatment or Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS). Here at Innovative Psychiatry we’ve consistently seen 80% positive results in our most treatment-resistant patients. We’ve also seen 75% positive response in our treatment-resistant patients to TMS.
2018 can be your best year to date. There are outstanding alternatives available now to help you if nothing has helped before.
To the year of your best self yet,
Lori Calabrese, M.D.