Unhappiness is one of the worst feelings on the planet. It gives us a sense of hopelessness. Many of us think that unhappiness is something that’s temporarily present like it won’t happen again or only on some few occasions. But, for many, that feeling is constant throughout life. Many people who experience constant unhappiness are susceptible to psychological disorders, like depression, anxiety and even stress. Our brains’ constant storytelling to ourselves can be our own worst enemies.
Feeling Unhappy? Here’s What Happens in Your Brain
Your mood is everything. Our mood can decide how we face life or how we socialize with the world. A bad mood can even trigger different patterns in your body that could be threatening for your health. Take the example of stress, which exists in everybody’s life. Such disorders are believed to be in the mind, but in reality, it manifests in your whole body. Stress liberates glucocorticoid, specifically, cortisol, which can damage our sleeping patterns, our immune system and even our blood-pressure. It’s no wonder that a group of scientist at the University of California at San Francisco are trying to find the specific structures in the brain related to unhappiness.
Unhappiness in Your Brain
As reported in Scientific American, a group led by psychiatrist Vikaas Sohal of UCSF found specific brain structures related to unhappiness. Through electroencephalography recordings, the scientists went deep into the human limbic system – that is, the mammal brain, a region of brain structures specialize with emotions, memory and the relay of sensory information. In there, they found that the more activity the amygdala and the hippocampus had, the worse the mood of the human subject would get. As Sohal found out, the contrary is also true, “We basically found that when there is less activity in this network, mood is more positive.”
Why these brain structures?
The amygdala is probably the most well-known brain structure related to emotions. Hidden in our limbic system, the amygdala is an almond-shaped structure responsible for emotional responses, especially fear. When you’re walking on the sidewalk and a car almost hits you, your amygdala responds by sending signals to brain structures related to automatic physiological responses – sweating, heart racing, and high blood pressure – that made you dodge such a moment. As the American psychologist William James explained, when you see a bear, your body responds first, and become conscious of such moment after.
Although the amygdala is key for emotions, too much activity in it can be harmful. In fact, severely depressed patients have shown in their brains enlarged amygdalas. Feeling unhappiness damages such brain structures, because it can lead you to other psychological disorders that alter your mood and even your behavior. This is why the amygdala is connected to the prefrontal cortex. Such brain structure in the front of our brain helps regulate the activity of our amygdala (our emotions). Moreover, that connection — amygdala/prefrontal cortex — is key for making decisions. If you are feeling severely unhappy constantly, the activity in your amygdala will be out-of-sync with your prefrontal cortex, which in part, will make decision tasks much harder and in some occasions, erroneous.
The hippocampus is the other key brain structure in the study by Sohal. This brain structure is shaped like a seahorse in the limbic system and is connected with the amygdala. Moreover, the amygdala receives inputs from the different parts of the brain cortex and is involved with learning and memory. Why does it play a big role in feeling unhappy?
The hippocampus is in charge of episodic memories. These impactful memories, like an assault, an accident, rape and even seeing your friend die in war, can affect the way you behave for the rest of your life. Because the amygdala is linked with the hippocampus, such memories can be charged with negative emotions, triggering a state of unhappiness, depression, and even stress.
Last Word on Unhappiness on Your Brain
You don’t need to have these extreme scenarios described earlier to have mood disorders or be unhappy. Unhappiness is everywhere: when we don’t get a raise, when a girlfriend or boyfriend dumps us, etc. But, when these feelings are constant, it creates a cycle that makes us susceptible to major disorders of the mind. It is why the latest study by UCSF is very important. As Brendon Watson told Scientific American, “If that is right, doctors might figure out how to interrupt that cycle with deep-brain stimulation or electroshock therapy for people with major depressive and anxiety disorders.”