Neurophysiology of sadness

Neurophysiology of sadness

In my years as a physician, I often had to intervene in the sadness spiral.  When one has a stroke, it is sudden and unexpected. Often the first thing one knows is that they wake up in a hospital having difficulty moving.  They must depend on strangers to get out of bed and do other things. Being dependent on others makes one feel like a child. One of the markers of being an adult is the ability to care for ourselves and others.

Recovering from a stroke takes time. Time that was not planned for. This unplanned interruption of life is depressing.  Depression makes recovering from a stroke harder. The brain recovers its ability to direct the body’s movements over weeks and months. During this time muscles atrophy and joints stiffen. To prevent these complications doctors prescribe exercises. It takes effort to exercise with the therapist. Up to forty percent of stroke suffers will get depressed.  Adding an antidepressant medication to the treatment plan can speed recovery.

In our brains different things happen when we are happy or sad. Different parts of our brains are active when we are happy or sad. Our brain cells use chemicals called neurotransmitters to communicate with each other. Many sad or depressed people don’t make as much serotonin as they do when happy. The most commonly used drugs for depression; SRI’s increase the amount of serotonin available in the brain.

Images of brain blood flow show that in happy brains blood flows to the cortex or thinking parts of the brain when sad or depressed this does not happen. This partially explains why we think better when happy.

There exists evidence that your immune system also works better when we are happy. Thus happiness can keep us from being ill. Conversely, when we are ill we often feel depressed and that will lead to more illness.

A stress hormone, corticotrophin releasing factor (CTrf) can also be increased in depression.    CTrf causes increased levels of adrenalin and other adrenal hormones. Increased levels of adrenal hormones cause increased blood pressure and are associated with more deaths after heart attacks and strokes.


Beside medications what can you do to be happy?

We now know that we can reprogram our brains.  Several techniques are known to reverse the changes seen in unhappy brains. These techniques fall into two categories, reversing unhappy changes and strengthening happy parts of the brain.  Meditative techniques like mindfulness reverse unhappy changes.  Finding ways to enjoy and be happy can reinforce the happy brain.

Such simple things as forcing a smile change our brains. I experienced this many years ago, when I had a very stressful semester in college. I developed a spastic colon. I would get gut cramps for no apparent reason. They might double me up while walking across campus. By just smiling the cramps would stop. Eventually I dropped a troublesome course and the cramps stopped.

Music and other things are known to make our brains behave in happier ways. So when you feel stressed or sad, do something that makes you feel happy?


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