Turn Down Your Brain’s Worry Center

Control worrying by controlling your brain’s worry patterns
Published on October 9, 2012 by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. in Fulfillment at Any Age
Worry is a natural emotion that occurs when we feel threatened. However, many of our worries are unfounded, sapping our energy and deflecting our attention from life’s real problems. In a recent New York Times article, Boston author David Ropeik makes the case that most of us don’t know how to worry. Although we often underestimate how risky something really is, we are even more likely to overestimate the dangers of taking actions that would actually help us.  In other words, when it comes to evaluating the risk-benefit ratio of our actions, we do a pretty poor job.  This is because our brains are wired to worry first and think second.  This quote from the work of NYU neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux sums it up in a nutshell: “connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.” The emotional system LeDoux refers to is the limbic system, the set of structures deep within the brain that fires up in situations which have implications for our survival and well-being.  When we’re threatened, a little structure called the amygdala screams out in fear. When delight comes our way, or even the anticipation of delight, other structures in the limbic system shoot off large quantities of the neurotransmitter dopamine.  The limbic system sends its stimulation up to the cortex, where these sensations inform our higher-order mental structures.  


As LeDoux points out, the interaction between the limbic system and the cortex is a two-way street. Your limbic system informs your cortex, but your cortex can also control your limbic system.  You can over-ride your limbic system’s tendency to let your emotions control your life, but it takes effort. You have to decide to be the one in charge of your emotions, or your emotions will take charge of you. The essence of cognitive therapy involves helping clients learn to change their emotions by changing their thoughts. Cognitive-behavioral therapy goes one step farther in prescribing a series of activities that clients undertake in order to ensure that they don’t just think, but also act, differently. In neuroscience terms, cognitive-behavioral therapy retrains the rational part of the cortex to take control over the irrational emotions of the limbic system.  

Ordinarily, the cortex receives input from the outside environment through the sense organs, which in turn shoot messages through at least a part of the limbic system. That’s why we feel before we think.  However, if we speed up or strengthen the cortex’s natural ability to inhibit the limbic system, we can change our feelings before they have a chance to impair our behavior or judgment. 

In a review of studies bearing on this very question, a team of Brazilian neuroscientists headed by Patricia Ribeiro Porto (2009) concluded that cognitive-behavioral therapy in fact does change the neural circuits involved in the regulation of anxiety. Other studies have, similarly, shown beneficial effects of cognitive and cognitive-behavioral therapy on the neurobiology of negative emotions.

Many people think that the only way to change your brain’s chemistry is through medication. These studies provide clear evidence that you can change your brain’s chemistry by changing how your brain interprets the data it receives from your limbic system.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy not only has fewer side effects (i.e. none) compared to medication, but it produces changes that can last for years, if not a lifetime.  After you learn to change the way your limbic system reacts, you have less reason to worry because you’re not processing your experiences the same way anymore. 


About basicrulesoflife

Year 1935. Interests: Contemporary society problems, quality of life, happiness, understanding and changing ourselves - everything based on scientific evidence.
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