Understanding how the connections work between our genes, our brains, and our environment can be a powerful force to exert more control over mood states and life destiny. Our body systems and experiences are integrated by our complex thinking centers to make discerning judgments in our daily lives. It is the complex thinking center, in what is called the prefrontal cortical areas of the brain that seems to be our primary supervisory emotional management system. Here information from the environment and body is integrated and a discerning response becomes possible. This collaboration of brain systems also gives us the ability to consciously decide how it is that we are going to respond to any given situation in our life experience. Brain-imaging has repeatedly demonstrated that healthy, emotionally equilibrated people are thinking people who habitually guide lower feeling states with thoughtfulness.
Genes interact with life experience in childhood to establish a core emotional reactivity level. The childhood brain is actively laying down emotional response patterns. The genetic personality temperament is sculpted by family emotional response styles that become etched into the neural pathways of our brains, resulting in behavioral habits of emotional expression. For the most part, all of this is happening quite without conscious awareness. Memory is coded in the context in which it occurred. For instance patterns learned in the intimacy of the childhood family are likely to be elicited unconsciously in the adult family context, but perhaps not in a social or work setting. Even family thought patterns are subsumed, and they, too, influence how we think about and express feeling states. Childhood tragedy or poor parental emotional control or a lack of nurturing and safety can accelerate emotional reactivity. If disruption or emotional outburst is experienced frequently, it becomes imprinted into the neuronal pathways to be triggered and reenacted, most often without awareness that whatever set if off in the here and now may not be relevant. The point is that the neuronal emotional and behavioral pattern is there to be triggered. It is so easy to blame someone or something for an emotional over reaction in the present. Many people do not realize that their intense emotional reaction patterns in the present may well be more related to reactivity patterns laid down by repeated exposure to excessive emotional reactivity, trauma or neglect experienced in the childhood developing brain. If you are lucky emotions may interface with the cognitive centers for moderated, thoughtful reactions. If the memory patterns experienced in critical childhood brain development are not those in which feelings have been tempered by prudent reflection, there may be explosive reactivity far more often than a thinking person would want. The feeling centers in these cases habitually commandeer the thinking systems, often with poor result.
Impulsive behavior typically peaks in adolescence. For most people, this period is resolved as the brain grows and develops into adulthood, under the nurturing tutelage of loving family and mentors. If this is the case, one has the possibility to grow into a resourceful, deliberative person who is able to plan and works toward purposeful life goals without the frequent disruption of negative emotional upheaval. Some people are fortunate to have good emotional genes and a consistent, safe, nurturing childhood environment. Judicious parents monitor negative emotional expression with circumspection. They teach their children to do the same. On the other hand, stress hormones seem to emblazon the memory of distress so that it is easily triggered and coded with all the upset feeling states. The imaged recollection of the hurtful experience readily comes to mind. Thoughtless, impulsive language and behavior portends a poor prognosis for relationship, career and life success.
Chronic stress is associated with brain simplification, including loss of cells and neuronal connections. These kinds of changes can save energy and decrease response time under duress, but at the cost of diminished abilities for recall and thought. Chronic stress literally “dumbs you down”. Periods of extreme stress at any age can overload the complex thinking, mood regulating system of the brain and result in fewer resources to manage emotions. Thought is metabolically expensive. Thinking through a situation is slower and takes more energy than impulsivity. Automatic, quick reactions may be adaptive in a crisis. Never-the-less, the end result of habitual impulsivity, especially in relationships, is likely to be disastrous. Impulsive people with sudden mood changes are often difficult to live and work with and respond poorly to stress and change. They may frequently misread others’ motives and respond impetuously.
People who are genetically or developmentally vulnerable to heightened emotional reactivity are more likely to end up in adulthood with a strong stress response system that can now be readily seen by brain imaging. This hyperactive stress response system may have physical reverberations, leading to lower stress tolerance, increased blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar and intensified and impulsive emotional expression. Cortisol is our major stress hormone. Average cortisol levels tend to be higher in adults who recall low bonding with their parents as children. Recent studies have also linked chronic stress or trauma in critical childhood development to cardiac problems, diabetes and center body weight gain.
We know that people who are more impulsive have greater activity in the central activating brain center for fear and anger -the amygdala-- an activating circuitry that appears to be larger in those who exhibit excessive anxiety and depression. In general, greater responsivity in the amygdala correlates with decreased activity in the complex thinking center. The stress response is also tied to the amygdala activation center. Those who grow up with harsh, inconsistent childhood experiences are more likely to have a hyperactive amygdala activating system that can be readily observed in the brain scan. Recent studies of adults in their fifties who recalled having cold and distant parenting relationships exhibited three times more cardiac problems, alcoholism and depression than a matched control study group of the same age who recalled happy parenting relationships.
Early childhood nurturing may impact the size of the adult hippocampus. This is a very important part of the brain associated with short term memory abilities. Animal studies have shown that early life nurturing literally turns on genes that lead to an increase in synaptic brain connections in the hippocampus. Interestingly, the size of the hippocampus has been related in the brain research to self esteem. In comparing normal people and those with a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD), brain imaging has validated that those with PTSD also had a smaller hippocampus. The cingulated cortex, a portion of the brain that evaluates and helps to integrate incoming information, also appears to be consistently smaller in PTSD patients. We see again that stress results in biochemical reactions in our brains that make us more emotionally reactive and less able to think carefully. The good news here is that some regenerative potential has been demonstrated within the hippocampus when there is decreased life stress and restorative experience.
It is becoming clear that good nurturing at critical childhood development biologically facilitates life long abilities to cope with stress and modulate feeling states. The most important inhibitory neurotransmitter system is the Gabba system. It is this system that quiets our stress reaction. This is the system that is targeted by alcohol and the Valium/Xanax type drugs. In a fascinating research study reported at Harvard Medical School, it was found that good maternal nurturing while growing up actually results in more efficient and prolific Gabba receptors, limiting the stress activating system.
Social bonds are also a key factor in mood regulation. Recently, researchers are talking about mirror neurons. Amazingly, these brain neurons seem to activate when we are observing the behavior of others. The actions of others to are internally modeled. It is the mirror neurons that help us understand and connect to one another and to find empathy. These neurons make it possible for our own internal bio-systems to become impacted by other people in our lives. Related research tells us that childhood deprivation and abuse leave deficits diminishing the representation of empathy, happiness and love in the brain. Love is a skill associated with a network of memories that predispose a mind bent and response of care for the other. If one has no experience of love, there may be a deficiency in the love memory network. Imagine the consequences for adult relationships. Fortunately, as long as the brain is intact, new learning about what thoughts and behaviors are important in establishing and maintaining loving relationships can be practiced until they become habit. Although it may not be second nature for those exposed to the human behavior motif of love during childhood critical development, it may never-the-less be acquired! Indeed, love heals emotional upset.
How we handle pleasure is of also of immeasurable importance for mood regulation. If there is no reward, there is no learning. How we set up our patterns of reward is one way to take thoughtful control over the kind of life you want to live. But remember if we are using a mood altering substance, like alcohol or drugs, our thinking center almost immediately goes “off line” so that we are no longer adept at cognitively screening and guiding our thoughts and feelings. The complex thinking center is precisely the area of the brain that we access to “think through feelings,” to modulate emotional states and impulsivity and to think before speaking and acting. Teaching children and adults the patience and persistence for reflective long term goals may be of greatest importance for our future world.
Certain genotypes will result in people who have an inherently easier time focusing on cognitive rather than the reward aspects of their experience. Some people are genetically slower at calming emotional agitation. Even with these differences, our learning can vastly influence how we use the genes we have. Your genetic temperament is not destiny. If you were lucky to have nurturing, thoughtful parents, there is a good chance that you acquired those patterns also and reenact them easily within the spectrum of your genetic endowment. If not, you may still decide to temper reactivity with thought. Cognitive behavioral psychotherapy is a good place to start.
Other gene variations related to the neurotransmitter dopamine receptors result in a greater personality tendency for impulsivity. These people are more vulnerable to drug and alcohol abuse. Serotonin is a modulating neurotransmitter (serotonin is the target of the Prozac and family drugs). Some people have a different genetic Serotonin variation than make it harder to manage upset than those having another variation. Remember that we can increase Serotonin with medication, but also with healthy activities like exercise, social support and laughter.
No matter what your gene sort, characteristically, quiet, small pleasures on a routine, daily basis bring equilibrium and long term peacefulness without the side effects of euphoric experiences so commonly associated with drugs and alcohol. Setting up a healthy lifestyle promotes well being on many levels. Mood regulation is all about exercise, light, sleep, cognition and social support. Living in compassionate, respectful self relationship means addressing all of these facets on a daily basis. A good life is a dynamic proposition that requires daily efforts towards deliberation and measured response.
Psychotherapy works on a top down model with a gradual change in thinking and lifestyle that slowly promotes habits of thoughtful, conscious control over physical states related to emotional distress. Medication, on the other hand, works from a bottom up model, calming physical body system first. Sometimes both are necessary, sometimes not. Either way, lasting relief from a hyper-reactive/intensified emotional system will call for long term changes in thinking and behavior, unless medication is to become a lifestyle. Too many Americans look for the quick medication fix without doing the hard work of thinking and behavior change. It is disturbing for many of us to notice the nonchalance of an over-medicated society, including children. One has only to watch and listen to the side effects blithely mouthed in pharmaceutical advertisements to feel the worrisome concern for people taking psychiatric medication without making the hard effort of cognitive and behavioral changes.
In the context of today’s world, it is significant to understand that many of our emotionally charged feelings are related to the quite unconsciously subsumed pattern of thought and feelings expressed by our childhood environment and surrounding culture. How many people in our world hate because they were taught to hate in their families and culture of origin? There is the possibility for hope in our ability to sort out these patterns in our thinking and living through thoughtful self awareness, education, and nurturing a tolerant, complex life perspective. We may feel a certain way because we have been taught to feel that way, but the feeling and opinion isn’t really your own until you examine it in self reflection and decide to keep or discard it.
Good therapy is all about change, and change is all about learning new ways to reasonably monitor and alter faulty emotional reactivity patterns. Learning research indicates that practice predicts expertise. Innate capacities and practice work in concert to acquire new skills of emotional self regulation. Changing patterns of impulsive misinterpretation, negative thinking and emotional reactivity may take hard work and perseverance like any other new skill. This one however, can change the value of your life. Researchers tell us that successful change necessitates that one tackle challenges just beyond their present level of competency. Once we acquire a pattern of thought, behavior, relationship, speech, eating, drinking, etc., it becomes automatic and for the most part mindless. It is commonly impervious to improvement. Conscious self observation (listening to feedback and self examination so as to inspect, criticize and augment our own life patterns) is a process that leads to a trajectory of change that may develop your ability to guide feelings thoughtfully with mastery and finesse.
- Dr. Linda Klaitz, Medical Psychologist