Are Guilt, Shame, and Worry Rewarding? You Might Be Surprised
By Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-S
If neuroscience came with a slogan, it’d probably be: The Brain – We’re Just Getting Started. There’s so much yet to learn about this organ. There’s so much to uncover as we grow to understand why gray and white matter matter so much! But we learn a bit more each day. And some of it isn’t what we predicted.
In fact, neuroscience is discovering that the brain’s relationship with your emotions aren’t always what one would hypothesize. For instance – did you know the emotions of guilt and shame actually activate the reward center of the brain? It seems counterintuitive, as feeling bad about something doesn’t feel rewarding at all. Yet it’s not entirely perplexing, either. The brain, as we’ve come to learn, is just full of surprises.
It works like this – guilt and shame act on the brain in a manner similar to pride (even though pride, one could argue, is the very opposite of the other two). Nevertheless, each of these emotions activates the same type of neural circuit – these include the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, the insula, and the nucleus accumbens.
Though they activate the same areas, they don’t do it to the same degree. Pride, for example, more potently activates all the above with the exception of the nucleus accumbens (here, guilt and shame are a stronger trigger). The nucleus accumbens plays a major role in our ability to process motivation, incentive, pleasure, and positive reinforcement. It also plays a vital role in addiction, but less of a role in fear and impulsive behavior.
So – yes – guilt and shame can make the brain feel better. But they’re not the only “negative” emotions that do this – worrying may also give you a boost.
Again, it seems like the opposite would happen, but worrying does make the brain calm down. However, 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 while 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 lives of a guilt, shame, worry trifecta, yet, on occasion, these emotions may not be as damaging as assumed. If they persist, science suggests there are ways to avoid this tripod of stress (or at least minimize it). One way to do this is to label negative feelings.
In Synergetic Play Therapy, we advocate for this. We name our experiences – we say what we are feeling inside. 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 makes sense – what we resist tends to persist. And this is true when it comes to suppressing negative emotions. Why? Because telling ourselves not to think about something guarantees that we will 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, but every day we learn something we didn’t know before. We’ll probably never know everything about the ol’ noggin – it’s just that complex – but what we do learn we embrace. With each step, we understand a bit more about why we do the things we do.
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