I pursued an MSc in Psychology & Neuroscience of Mental Health to understand how neuroscience can help inform psychological theory and practices. Personally, I had to understand the mechanics in my brain to understand why I suffered and now thrive with depression. So when new research comes along that intentionally looks to make an informed connection, I’m not only curious… I’m excited.

On Monday, a new study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience at the heart of this connection. The study was designed to map real-world emotional experiences with the brain’s individual processes towards negative, positive and neutral events and their impact on wellbeing.

Researchers looked at the activation of the amygdala in response to both negative, positive and neutral stimuli. They found that when the amygdala was activated for a prolonged time, persistently processing a negative image, even after being confronted with a neutral image, it predicted an “increase in negative daily mood and decrease[d]… positive daily mood”, just like a ripple, if our amygdala is continuously processing a negative event, it can impact how we interpret following events. One small incident could affect our mood in other interactions and events throughout the day.

What’s the Amygdala: The amygdala is the part of the brain that is involved in the “momentary emotional responses” to an individuals interpretation of an event, the environment, or a person. It’s when your brain efficiently decides if something is a threat or not.

Overall, the study suggests that “amygdala activity influences how a person feels day-to-day, which can impact overall psychological wellbeing”.

Let’s look at an example. You wake up and head straight for the shower. In the shower, you reach for your shampoo on the shelf, but it slips out of your hands and lands right on your toe — OUCH! Some people will consider this an awful event and others just a fleeting moment of inconvenience. Everyone would process that event differently in their mind.

For those that find that event distressing, their amygdala may be persistently negatively activated, interacting with the rest of the brain, which in turn may be linked to “self-evaluative measures”, and this, may lead to “more frequent and long-lasting momentary emotional experiences.”

You may be thinking — but of course! Everyone knows that if you’re in a negative mood, the rest of your interactions may be tainted with negativity. But that’s not what this research is exploring. It’s looking instead at the specific brain region, the amygdala, and whether more persistent activation affects our daily life outlook. And the results suggest that it works both ways.

“Individuals demonstrating less persistent activation patterns in the left amygdala to aversive stimuli reported more frequent positive and less frequent negative affect (NA) in daily life.”

This study is validation for me that even the smallest of situations, events or interactions can trigger our amygdala and affect us for longer than we expect.

The good news is that we can help our amygdala.

  • By experiencing more positive mood states, we can create positive, long-lasting momentary emotional experiences.
  • By working through our negative thoughts when emotional situations or events arise, using our inner voice, we can positively increase our self-evaluative measures to not get “stuck” in persistent negative amygdala ripple making processing.
  • By practising mindfulness, pausing in the moment, and taking stock of what’s happening, we can calm our emotional reactions and work to bring our amygdala back to neutral.

See if you can catch yourself and attend to those negative events and stimuli before they start to impact on your daily wellbeing.

Go Get ‘Em!

Linking Amygdala Persistence to Real-World Emotional Experience and Psychological Well-Being, Nikki A. Puccetti, Stacey M. Schaefer, Carien M. van Reekum, Anthony D. Ong, David M. Almeida, Carol D. Ryff, Richard J. Davidson, Aaron S. Heller, Journal of Neuroscience, 22 March 2021, JN-RM-1637–20; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1637–20.2021

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