The Moody Brain
On some days, why do we feel more fiery or more defeated than other days?
Through a combination of our brains, our memories and our stressors, we arrive at our current mood.
Mood is like memory, imperfect and incomplete — a faint fragrance, trails of a tune, a sliver of a glance, a shadow, a twang of voice.
Something we sense triggers a place deep in the brain to say,
“This is what ‘that’ feels like, remember?”
Your mood is shaped by fragments of your previous moods. Depending on your stress level at any given time, the mood memories that arise to influence you will vary. Stress and mood are inextricably connected.
The Three-Eyed Brain
One metaphor for the brain is what I call, “three-eyed seeing”: three distinct ways in which we view our experiences.
By understanding these views, we can draw the link between how our stressors can impact different parts of our “brain vision.”
Although I describe the brain in three parts below, different parts of the brain are never isolated or single-tasked in their functions. The key to understanding mood, memory and stress is to see how and when the brain prioritizes certain input more others. That understanding requires a little separation and definition.
Way at the back of your skull – where the brain meets your spinal cord – is an area called the hindbrain. It is where our basic functions like balance, heart rate, breathing, digestion, sleeping and waking are regulated. Sometimes called the “reptilian” brain, the hindbrain is where the basic functions of survival originate. The vagus nerve passes through this area and influences whether we slip into “fight or flight” or “rest or digest” mode. It is the only nerve that wanders from brain to gut, picking up on signals from our digestion to our social connection, and all the subtle signals in our environment.
I call this the instinctual brain; we don’t know or process the “why”, but we act. It is urgent and safety-oriented. The instinctual brain is all about self-preservation and protection.
Our amygdala – two little almond-shaped portions in the middle of our brains – have the tendency to hoard the sensations of memories that trigger a stress response. The nucleus accumbens – two tiny nut-shaped portions of the brain behind the eyebrows – are mostly associated with dispersing signals of reward and safety. These memories and signals can evoke positive or negative emotions that help us make decisions.
I call this the intuitive brain. The intuitive brain is perceptive and focused on patterns.
The way we respond to our intuitive brain is a bit like jelly. A memory shakes us to respond but the impact is buffered; the exact memory is slightly hazy due to the jelly. We feel the shake, we know something is happening, but can’t quite pinpoint the source of the sensation. This is where we feel: “This doesn’t feel good” or “This feels safe”.
Depending on whether those memories were cast as positive or negative, our mood in the present moment can sway. Through time and space we travel from back then to now and carry our mood souvenirs with us.
The front and outer covering of the brain is called the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) and is mostly associated with cognition, the complex reasoning and logical part of our brain. It is from here that we look at risks and consequences, value patience and reward, and lay out positive and negatives. This is where we think. Focused on the present situation, our PFC is our headlamp: it shines light for detail and clarity in the direction we are pointed toward.
I call this the intellectual brain. Though clear-headed, it can miss some subtle, abstract, or hidden information that our other “i’s” can see. The intellectual brain is focused on detail and reason in the present moment.
We need to see with all three eyes to be present, perceptive and protective.
Whether acute or chronic, stress impacts this brain trio; rising cortisol impacts the PFC. Stress breaks down our thinking:
It can impact concentration and leave us short-sighted.
When stress hits, we are less capable of accurately assessing a situation for risk or gain.
We start reaching for encoded memories of our own or others we know.
These memories from our intuitive brain influence our current state and how we feel about our situation.
When stress overwhelms us, the intellectual brain fails to keep the intuitive and instinctual brain in balance.
Memories can begin to override our reasoned thought, and we can begin to perceive our environment as a true threat.
An experience that triggers our stress response is in fact our intuitive and instinctual brain playing table tennis with our situation. This scenario sets up our brains for a negative bias – to see our environment/situation as intentionally or destined to be harmful.
Our moody blues may in fact be a combination of stress leaving our intuitive brain vulnerable to seeing things through a negative bias.
Three tips to beat the blues:
1. Long, deep exhales.
Breathing deeply is a signal to your vagus nerve and your hindbrain that the environment is safe. It allows your body to disarm and reassess. Once you have defused your fight or flight mechanism, you can turn your three-eyed seeing back on and engage with more clarity. When we breathe shallow breaths we can unknowingly put ourselves into hindbrain dominance – self-preservation rather than present and perceptive. If you notice you’ve put a negative bent on your day, take a few long, deep exhales; you might open your eyes to a different day.
2. Stress Inventory.
De-stressing is not so simple as breathing deeply. The next step is to recognize what your stressors are. Take a moment and ask yourself, “What are the pressure points for me today?” “How was my sleep?” “How have I eaten?” “What is my environment like right now?” “Is anything overwhelming me?” Start there and see what you can change before chalking it up to the blues.
A valuable tool for beating the blues from a brain and body perspective is to find time to be with others. Social connection signals the vagus nerve and releases hormones to decrease cortisol. When you feel the blues beginning to take hold, find an environment where you can be face-to-face with someone you feel safe with.
Instead of cheering up or dismissing our blues, perhaps our path to mental wellness is through mindfulness and stress awareness.