I’ve wondered about what goes on in my brain when my mood changes. A couple of weeks ago, I was pretty much always in a “bad” mood. I didn’t like who I was, I felt that others didn’t like me, I was feeling like I was in a rut and didn’t know what to do to climb out of it. Having battled depression for most of my life, this is certainly not a new phenomenon. I am in a much better mood now. I have been writing, I lost 5 pounds on Weight Watcher’s last week, and I feel pretty happy. Last night, my wife and I went out to dinner and coffee with some friends and I was very upbeat and talkative. I joked with my wife that this is about as close to manic as I can get.
So what is this mood change all about? Is my mood dependent on my thoughts? How does my environment change my mood? How do my friends and family change my mood? People often say that you can just snap out of a bad mood. But how exactly does this happen? What’s going on in that brain of mine? Do my thoughts change my mood or does my mood allow me to think differently?
I do know that how I choose to think about things changes my mood. When I feel that things are out of control or beyond my abilities, I am in a bad mood. When I feel motivated and confident, I am in a good mood. When I am willing to believe in myself and give myself credit, I am in good mood. When I feel like I could have done better or I have failed, I am in a bad mood. So what it a thought? What is an idea? Are these simply patterns of neurons in my brain which fire in a certain way? How do I change them?
I’ve been doing some reading about mindfulness lately and I find it to be fascinating. Psychology Today defines mindfulness as “a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.”
According to an article in the American Psychiatric Association Journal Monitor on Psychology, mindfulness may actually lead to changes in our brains, improving connectivity among some brain areas and changing tissue density in key regions. When people pay attention to the present moment, they use a different set of neural pathways than when they engage in narrative self-reference to think about experiences over time. People with mood disorders are asked to pay attention to sensations and feelings rather than evaluative thoughts. That in turn exercises and strengthens the pathways involved in experiential self-reference. Research is showing that, in a resting state, experienced meditators had less activity among areas of the brain involved in self-referential thoughts than novice meditators. Another study showed that people who had never meditated, and then took an 8-week course in mindfulness stress reduction techniques, had increased brain density in the areas of emotion control and serotonin development.
Now here’s the great news. The research shows that the neural changes brought on by mindfulness appear to be following the basic rules of neuroplasticity, which is the ability to enhance connectivity in neural structures through practice. This brain re-training is very common in people who have lost a physical ability due to a brain injury. For example, a person whose brain has been injured in the area which controls the movement of the right hand may be able to develop other pathways in the brain in order to move his hand. In other words, the more we practice mindfulness, the better we become at it and the easier it becomes to be in a mindful state.
Like any skill, you must continue to practice mindfulness or you will lose it. I think it’s time for me to give this a try. I have a good friend who is a yoga teacher. Maybe I should give one of her classes a try and see how meditation works for me. If I’m in the mood.