It seems that 2017 has been the year of feeling hella triggered by current events, bad news, and oppressive presidents, and the general garbage elements of existence. A daily dose of our past and potential trauma is now right at our digital doorsteps, and it might be a factor in unwanted thoughts. Figuring out how to take care of ourselves emotionally in these challenging times is an ongoing battle. So what if there was a way to have more moments of mental peace and calm in a world of constant chaos?
This might be more possible than you think — and the answer might be in your brain already.
This week, research that comes out of the University of Cambridge reports that scientists may be one step closer to getting our brains a little quieter. Research findings by Dr. Taylor Schmitz and Professor Michael Anderson from the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge “have identified a key chemical within the ‘memory’ region of the brain that allows us to suppress unwanted thoughts,” according to ScienceDaily.com.
With so many of us struggling to live with anxiety disorders, or have family members who toil with depression and other mental health issues, we can’t help but be hopeful that these research findings might mean more room in our heads for positive thoughts. And if you’re an empathetic person who has a tendency to take on the emotional weight of trauma that is not your own, the idea that we might have more control over our mental stability than previously thought comes as very good news.
So how does it work?
For those with mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and schizophrenia, which are known to be accompanied by intrusive or obsessive unwanted thoughts, the culprit lies in the region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. Think of this area as the headmaster — they control areas of our brains responsible for our actions and memories.
Never has the above sentiment been so apropos with the string of tragic happenings and the season of wildly heightened susceptibility to anxiety and depression being upon us.
Professor Anderson, Dr. Schmitz and their team of scientists gathered participants in a ‘Think/No-Think” procedure: Each person was asked to associate two unrelated words and either recall or suppress those words based on different cues. The results are ladled with science-y jargon, but the main idea of it is that using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other technology, scientists observed the brains of participants when they attempted to actively inhibit their thoughts.
It was found that a neurotransmitter known as GABA is the catalyst for inhibiting unwanted thoughts, and when there is less of this neurotransmitter in the hippocampus, where memories take place in the brain, those individuals are ill-equipped to filter out those excessive thoughts.
While the research may not have revealed the immediate secret to making our brains hotbeds of positive thought and less fertile breeding grounds for worry and anxiety, it serves as an “I told you so” for those who stigmatize mental health issues as being something that an individual can control or choose. Those with hyperactive hippocampi literally cannot regulate their thoughts or perceptions as well as individuals with healthy levels of GABA.
Self-care, therapy, and maybe a social media detox (if news is a trigger for you) might be the solution in the meantime while research on the subject continues. Regardless, the very good news here is that scientists are on the job, and further understanding of our brains — and how to keep them healthy and happy — is actively unfolding.