Up Up and Away! The neuroscience behind boosting positive connections in your brain

By Debra Brodowski, National Manager of Psychological Services

Many of us have heard of the downward spiral of depression, but did you know there is an upward way out?

Our brain is made up of billions of neurones (around 100 billion to be exact) communicating with each other constantly throughout our daily lives. We have different circuits of neurones for enjoyment, worrying, mood, planning, sleep and the list goes on. Most of the time, the patterns in communication between these regions are regular and positive. Everyone does however, go through moments of difficulty and pain. While this is fleeting for most, and we get back to our normal patterns of thinking in no time, for others it may not be so easy.

The Neuroscience Behind the Downward Spiral

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has estimated that approximately 3 million Australians currently live with depression or anxiety (ABS, 2008). To break this down further, 1 in 6 people will experience depression at some stage of their lives. For these people, the feelings of difficulty may linger longer than usual and result in feeling bogged down and stuck, being unable to get out of the negative ways of thinking. Life events and decisions are viewed negatively which contributes to the downward spiral of thinking, resulting in negative changes to the way our brain communicates between its regions. This can snowball out of control, until it feels like we will never climb out of this dark hole. Emotions are replaced with an emptiness and numbness, and motivation is replaced with anxiety at even the thought of making future plans. This downward spiral of thinking impacts all aspects of an individual’s life, including their wellbeing, daily productivity, relationships and career.

The two basic areas in our brain that are affected by depression are the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the limbic system. Specifically, it is the miscommunication between these two areas. The “thinking” PFC and the “emotional” limbic system. Within these regions, our neurones communicate with each other through chemicals called neurotransmitters. Each neural circuit communicates using different neurotransmitters. All of our neurotransmitters are necessary for normal brain function and regulating healthy mood. Some of these include: serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin, GABA and melatonin to name a few. A deficiency in the release or uptake of any of these neurotransmitters contributes to a different depressive symptom.

Introducing the Upward Spiral

There is good news however, with both neuroscience and positive psychology research providing evidence that our neural circuits also have the ability to work in an upward spiral bringing us out of the depths of depression into a more normalised and positive pattern of thinking. Alex Korb, author of “The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time”, indicates that many small, positive life changes have the ability to elicit positive neural changes. Even the smallest change has the ability to boost your brain into the upward spiral and overcome bad habits and negative mood. We know brain regions communicate between each other, so altering the neurotransmitter activity in one region can create a flow-on effect to other regions spiralling us up and out of the rut we may have been in. We will explore some of the small steps that Korb has found to trigger your upward spiral and alter the activity in your brain to create positive neural circuits:

  • Exercise: A quote from Korb states that “almost everything that depression causes can be combatted by exercise”. Exercise improves sleep, gives you energy, improves your appetite, enhances concentration and improves decision making, reduces anxiety and makes you more social. In the neuroscience perspective, exercise increases nerve growth factors which are protective to developing depression. As well, it boosts serotonin activity which in turn boosts mood, motivation and decision making.
  • Decision making: for people experiencing depression, they are in a negative spiral that every decision they make feels like the wrong decision. This is due to the “emotional” limbic system overpowering the “thinking” PFC. By making more decisions, it involves brain regions such as the PFC, that reduce worry and anxiety, overcome negative impulses (the striatum) and find solutions to problems by reducing activation in the limbic system. Like all muscles in the body, the more you use different areas of your brain, the stronger they will get. So start off decision making by setting intentions and goals (using your PFC) and strengthen this area and your upward spiral will begin to launch.
  • Sleep: poor sleep is strongly linked to depression. However, it is not enough to say “you need to get more sleep”. Rather, it is the quality of sleep we get. Poor quality can result in altering in neurotransmitter function, negative mood and poor learning and memory, as well as a range of physical consequences. It is important to set a good “nightly routine” including no technology in the bedroom, no screens two hours before bed, dimmed lights, regular bed and waking times, slowing down before bed such as by reading or doing breathing or relaxation techniques, as well as a good exercise routine.
  • Gratitude: for people experiencing depression, the gap between what you want and what you have seems larger than it may be, which is why gratitude is such a powerful tool. Gratitude is not dependent on life circumstances but a state of mind – we even have a gratitude brain circuit! Through activation of this circuit (and a release in dopamine), mood is lifted, sleep is improved, social connections are strengthened and even sleep quality is increased. Gratitude also boosts serotonin in the brain when recalling positive events.
  • Staying Connected: the downward spiral of depression is perpetuated by isolation, which is why social interaction is so important. Oxytocin is known almost universally as the “social hormone”. Having social interactions such as talking and physical contact boost oxytocin production and also change the communication in the fronto-limbic region. This works towards kicking off our upward spiral and improving out mood, decreasing stress as well as anxiety and even pain!
  • Professional help: psychologists and psychiatrists also play a vitally important role in providing tools to reverse depression. It is important to seek help with a mental health professional for evidence-based strategies and have extra support so you don’t have to feel you are going through this alone.

Everyone has times of low mood, and there is nothing different about the brains of people who have depression compared to those who do not. Most people have tendencies towards an upward spiral of thinking, however each individual has different ways of sparking this upward spiral and getting them out of the stuck rut. By starting small with any of the steps listed, you will be able to kick-start your upward spiral and boost your wellbeing!

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