Why Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Mindfulness are so important.
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the adult brain to change its structure or function in an enduring way and therefore by tapping into this neuroplasticity we can potentially relieve emotional suffering.
Neurobiologist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, an expert on the emotional brain, has researched the patterns of brain activity that characterize facets of our emotional style, such as how well we maintain positive feelings.
The brain’s emotional circuits are connected to its thinking circuits, and as a result, activity in certain cognitive regions sends signals to the emotion-generating regions. You can therefore manipulate your emotions via your thoughts.
Davidson discovered that people who are resilient—able to regain their emotional balance after a setback rather than wallowing in anxiety, anger, depression, or another negative emotion—have strong connections between the left prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the amygdalae. The left PFC sends inhibitory signals to the amygdalae, basically telling them to quiet down. As a result, the negative feelings generated by the amygdalae peter out, and you’re not mired in unhappiness or resentment. In contrast, people with little emotional resilience (including those with depression, who may be shattered by every disappointment) have fewer or weaker signals between the PFC and the amygdalae, due to either low activity in the PFC or poor connections between it and the amygdalae.
Neurally inspired therapy to increase emotional resilience, then, strengthens the left PFC so it sends stronger, longer-lasting inhibitory signals to the amygdalae. Davidson argues that mindfulness meditation, in which you observe your thoughts and feelings with the objectivity of a disinterested, nonjudgmental witness; gives you “the wherewithal to pause, observe how easily the mind can exaggerate the severity of a setback, note that it as an interesting mental process, and resist getting drawn into the abyss,” he told me. As a result, you create stronger connections between the PFC and the amygdalae, and thus fewer persistent feelings of anger, sadness, and the like after an emotional downer.
Another way to strengthen the circuitry that supports emotional resilience is through cognitive reappraisal training, in which you challenge the accuracy of catastrophizing thoughts (“I am days behind in my work; I’m going to get fired”). This “directly engages the prefrontal cortex,” Davidson says, “resulting in increased prefrontal inhibition of the amygdalae.”
Davidson has also discovered that in people whose default mode is a positive frame of mind and a sense of well-being, there is high activity in the left PFC as well as in the nucleus accumbens. This is a structure deep within the brain that is associated with pleasure and a sense of reward and motivation. In contrast, in people with a consistently negative outlook, the nucleus accumbens is quiet and is found to have few connections to the PFC.
(Adapted from Sharon Begley's article in Mindful Magazine October 2007)