By Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-S

Neuroscience is discovering that the brain’s relationship with our emotions are not always what one would hypothesize. For instance – did you know that so-called “negative” emotions like worry actually activate the reward centers of the brain? 

It seems counterintuitive, as feeling bad or worrying about something doesn’t feel rewarding at all. But worrying actually makes the brain settle down. Although, there is a catch: this improvement only happens when people worry about a problem they see as fixable. 

Worrying benefits the brain because it increases the activity in the medial prefrontal cortex as the brain attempts to problem solve the situation and play out potential helpful scenarios to minimize the fear.  As this occurs, it creates the possibility of shutting down the activity of the amygdala. This results in a limbic system that is better regulated.

None of this is to say that people should go out and adopt a life of worrying all the time …Yet, on occasion, worrying may not be as damaging as assumed (again, when problem solving is thrown in!)

It’s when worry persists that it has the opposite effect. But not to worry (… sorry, I couldn’t resist), science suggests there are ways to minimize the stress.  

One way to do this is to label negative feelings. In Synergetic Play Therapy, we advocate for this. We name our experiences or internal states out loud. MRI studies back this up as advantageous. 

These studies show that naming an experience activates the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex while reducing the reaction of the amygdala (the worry wart of the brain).

It also makes sense because what we resist tends to persist. And this is true when it comes to suppressing negative emotions.

Why? Because telling yourself not to worry about something guarantees that you’ll think about it. Try it for yourself – tell yourself not to think about a giant orange hippo. What’s the first thing that pops into your mind?

There’s much to learn about the brain, and every day we learn something we didn’t know before.

We’ll probably never know everything about the brain – it’s just that complex – but what we do learn we embrace. And with each step, we understand a bit more about why we do the things we do.