Our mood and emotions are intrinsically tied to our brains’ wellbeing. When we encounter stressful and traumatic situations the brain’s limbic system mobilizes its soldiers into action. But left in the field for too long, they become fatigued and shell-shocked.
Your physical actions and psychological mentality can contribute to either a never-ending stress feedback loop or a healthier and more sustainable mind-body-connection.
The Limbic System
Our brain’s limbic system controls various systems in our body and acts as the control center for our conscious emotions and unconscious functions (like breathing or heart beat). It connects the mind and body, melding the psychological with the physical. The limbic system does it all—creates intense feelings of pleasure, fear and anger, stores memories, and regulates hormone production.
Operating within this complex system are 3 key players: the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus.
Amygdala – For something the size of a kidney bean, the amygdala is an incredibly powerful piece of nervous tissue. It assigns emotional significance to different memories. When you experience a major event (either traumatic or wonderful) the amygdala keeps that same emotional intensity tied to the memory. This allows you to still feel the same strong emotions you did during that event by simply remembering it.
The Amygdala is most active during times of stress, anxiety, and depression. When the mind and body are under attack, it will send out signals to the hippocampus and hypothalamus to act.
Hippocampus – The hippocampus is located right next to the amygdala and the two frequently work together to sort and store long-term memories. Where the amygdala focuses on the emotions of an event, the hippocampus focuses on the sensory input.
Together the amygdala and hippocampus help the brain to remember and relive important memories. The hippocampus ensures that a scent or sound associated with a powerful event in your past triggers the memory of that event. Once you start remembering, the amygdala will ensure you feel the same emotions (fear, love, anger) that you did then.
These emotional memories play a vital role in evolutionary survival. When something terrible or traumatic happens, your brain stores that information as a way of teaching you what emotions and reactions are important for survival based on what happened during that event, like love for one’s child or partner, aggression, anxiety, and even fear.
Hypothalamus – The hypothalamus is directly connected to the amygdala. During times of stress, anxiety, and depression, the amygdala will send a distress call for the hypothalamus to release different neurotransmitters that get the body to act accordingly (like raising your heart rate, blood pressure or body temperature, or triggering a “fight-or-flight” response).
The hypothalamus also stimulates adrenaline. When the body is under stress, the hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to release cortisol (AKA the stress hormone).
Combined, the brain’s limbic system regulates how you feel, act, and remember traumatic or stressful events.
Your Brain on Stress
In the short-term, the limbic system’s response to stress can be life-saving. Chronic stress, however, can lead to long-term physical damage. Sustained stress and anxiety results in an increased risk of diabetes, obesity, heart attack stroke, hypertension, and of course, a weakened immune system.
The amygdala, responsible for fear-learning, becomes more prominent and empowered when exposed to long-term stress. This makes people more likely to react badly. If you’ve been under attack for a long time, it becomes more and more difficult to calm down even when there’s no threat in sight.
The hippocampus, under constant stress, will keep storing the subconscious memories and contribute to a never-ending cycle. Stress forms a stress memory with specific sensory triggers. Whenever those senses are felt, it will trigger the stress memory which in turn triggers more stress.
The never-ending stress and stress response put the hypothalamus into overdrive. It produces catecholamines—the neurotransmitters epinephrine, norepinephrine, and dopamine—and activates the adrenal glands. The chronic activation of the adrenal glands and long-term release of catecholamines have serious ramifications on both your mental and physical health. The increased levels of cortisol results in a lack of focus, energy, and ability to remember. And the constant secretion of certain hormones can lead to damaged blood vessels and sudden weight gain.
The good news is that our brains and bodies have the capability to recover.
How to Protect Your Limbic System
Protect your limbic system from overheating through internal and external, physical and psychological adjustments.
People today are inundated with an overwhelming amount of information. The digital age is ripe with distracting screens, eye-catching ads, and inflammatory social media posts. All these distractions interfere with focus and concentration, and create stress.
You can improve your ability to focus and concentrate through nutritional supplements (like stress-reducing amino acids), healthy diet, regular exercise, and good sleep habits. Spend some time away from your computer or iPhone screen. Walk outdoors and talk to someone face-to-face.
Don’t forget to address your mental, or psychological, health as well. The limbic system is all about memories and experiences. Therapy and meditation can help to make sense of painful experiences. That understanding helps you better manage your emotions to deal with stressful situations in a healthy way and reduce the chances of being caught in a stress cycle. You might schedule a formal therapy session, download a meditation app, or practice movement therapies like yoga or tai chi. For some people, meditation is a long hike, or an afternoon baking, or completing a jigsaw puzzle. However you choose to unwind, the goal is to sync your mind and body—focusing your thoughts on the physical actions and allowing your brain to relax and recover from stress.
Your physical actions and mental well-being contribute to a healthier and more sustainable mind-body-connection, one that empowers you with vitality, mental clarity, focus, and the ability to quickly recover from stressful events.