Depression is primarily a result of poor communication between the brain’s thinking prefrontal cortex and limbic system. Together, they make up the fronto-limbic system, which regulates your emotional state. When not functioning optimally, depression can result.
How Your Limbic System Contributes To Depression
The limbic system primarily includes four brain regions, which each contribute to and exhibit symptoms of depression differently.
Stress and the Hypothalamus
Elevated stress is both a cause and a symptom of depression. The hypothalamus regulates several hormones and controls the body’s stress response. It can sound the alarm, sending your body into fight or flight mode and raise stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol. In The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, Alex Korb describes the hypothalamus like this:
It’s like a military base waiting to deploy troops to deal with stress. When you’re depressed, it’s a base on high alert — it has a hair-trigger response, making it difficult to just relax and be happy. Finding ways to calm the hypothalamus is therefore one of the best ways to reduce stress.
Anxiety and the Amygdala
The amygdala primarily mediates anxiety and fear. Studies have shown that people with depression have higher amygdala reactivity and their amygdala stays active longer than people without depression. This means that a depressed brain reacts stronger and fixates longer on emotionally charged information making it harder to remain calm and rational. A calmer amygdala means a calmer, happier you.
Memory and the Hippocampus
The primary job of the hippocampus is to turn short-term memories into long-term ones. It’s like your brain’s “save” button. A depressed brain often can’t recall happy memories, but doesn’t have any trouble remembering every little detail of the bad stuff, which can be blamed on the hippocampus. In depression, research has found that the hippocampus tends to have abnormal activity and reduced size.
Attention and the Cingulate Cortex
Difficulty concentrating and hyper-focusing on the negative, both symptoms of depression, are controlled by the cingulate cortex. The front, the anterior cingulate cortex, acts as a gateway between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex, playing a big role in depression. The anterior cingulate cortex notices all of your mistakes, dwells on everything that’s wrong, and is a central part of the pain circuit. Alex Korb likens it to the screen on your computer. Even though there’s lots of data on your computer, the screen shows only the open tab, impacting what you do and how you feel.
How Changing Your Thoughts Changes Your Limbic System
Your thoughts cause a cascade of changes in your body right down to your genes and can either hurt or help your limbic system.
In his book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life: The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety, Depression, Obsessiveness, Lack of Focus, Anger, and Memory Problems, Dr. Daniel G. Amen explains it this way:
When the deep limbic system is overactive, it sets the mind’s filter on “negative.” People who are depressed have one dispiriting thought after another. When they look at the past,they feel regret. When they look at the future, they feel anxiety and pessimism. In the present moment, they’re bound to find some thing unsatisfactory. The lens through which they see themselves, others, and the world has a dim grayness. They are suffering from automatic negative thoughts or ANTs.
ANTs are those negative, discouraging, critical thoughts and beliefs stemming from your subconscious mind. They’re based on implicit memories and fears accumulated over your life and literally shape your mind and brain. According to Dr. Amen, there are nine types of ANTs:
- All or nothing – Everything is good or bad.
- Always thinking – Over generalizing with terms like always, never, every time, and everyone.
- Focusing on the negative – Focusing on the negative aspects of situations and ignoring or discounting the positives.
- Personalizing – Projecting innocuous events with personal meaning.
- Guilt beating – Using shame and guilt to control your behavior with words like “should”, “must”, “ought to”, and “have to.”
- Labeling – When you call yourself or someone else names or use negative terms to describe them.
- Fortune-telling – Predicting the worst catastrophe possible when you really don’t know what will happen. (This is a natural tendency of your brain.)
- Mind reading – When you assume that you know somebody else’s motivation or what they’re thinking without checking with them.
- Blame – Blaming others for your problems and not taking responsibility for your own successes and failures.
- Thinking with your feelings – Believing negative thoughts/feelings without ever questioning them.
Becoming aware of your ANTs, noticing how your body reacts to them, challenging them, and consciously choosing better thoughts that support you and your goals can change negative thinking patterns. Byron Katie’s exercise, called The Work, is a great tool for working with your thoughts.
Healing The Limbic System
Per Dr. Amen, the prescription for healing your limbic system is:
Kill the ANTs – Become aware of your moment-to-moment thoughts and consciously work with them to choose your beliefs and actions. Your goal is to notice, challenge, and choose your thoughts before your mind believes it and body reacts to it, and before they affect your relationships, work, and other areas of your life. This is the practice of mindfulness.
Surround yourself with people who provide positive bonding – The attitudes of others are contagious. Amen writes, “The mood and thoughts of others directly affect your limbic system. How our deep limbic system functions is essential to life itself. Spend time with people who enhance the quality of your limbic system rather than those who cause it to become inflamed.”
Protect your children with limbic bonding – One study found that teenagers who had deep limbic bonds with their parents, felt loved and connected, had significantly lower teen pregnancies, drug use, violence, and suicide. Amen suggests spending 20 minutes per day with a child, doing something they want to do, during which you notice the good and do more listening than talking.
Build people skills to enhance limbic bonds – Research has shown that stronger emotional bonding improves the function of the limbic system, as in mother and child or life partners. Make your relationships a priority. Take responsibility for yourself and your actions, make it a point to communicate and deal with problems as they arise, make time for, appreciate, and look for the good in your relationships.
Recognize the importance of physical contact – Your limbic system is involved in physical bonding as well as emotional. Touch is essential to life and being deprived of human touch alters a baby’s developing brain. Touch is similarly crucial to an adult brain and the healing power of touch has been noted irrefutably. Touch your children or your partner. Give hugs. Give or get a massage.
Surround yourself with great smells – Your limbic system processes your sense of smell. Smells cause your brain to produce neurochemicals and hormones that balance and regulate bodily systems. Pleasing smells affect your brain and moods positively. Diffuse essential oils. Take a scented bath. Surround yourself with flowers.
Build a library of wonderful memories – Your limbic system stores highly charged emotional memories – both happy and sad. Depressed people tend to recall memories consistent with their mood, which causes the release of neurochemicals and reinforces depressive brain circuits. By making the effort to remember positive things, you can induce different chemical patterns and tune into happier mental states. Make a go-to happy memory list, including vivid details down to feelings and smells.
Move your body – Physical exercise can be very healing to your brain and limbic system. In How Exercise Helps Your Brain, I write:
Research is showing that physical exercise improves mood, memory, attention, creativity, and learning and reduces depression, age related decline, and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Support your limbic system – Your limbic system and brain need a diet with an ample supply of good fats, proteins, and complex carbohydrates. Consider supplementing. Amen recommends l-tryptophan, inositol (from the B vitamin family), tyrosine, and dl-phynylalanine, and that you check with your doctor before taking.
Consider limbic medications – Antidepressant medications can help normalize limbic system activity. For best results, combine with other practices.