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How our Brain Function Relates to Unhappiness


Author: Shernide Delva

Ever wonder why it often seems natural to be unhappy? Believe it or not, stress is our body’s default setting. Our brains are designed to scan for threats.  When there are no immediate physical threats, social threats trigger your natural alarm system. This protective response helps in survival however it can leave you in a constant state of stress until you are aware of the process. Awareness allows the ability to rewire the way you approach stress and see the world in a new way.

Research shows that our brains have evolved to anticipate pain. Our brain has a brilliant capacity to learn from pain in order to avoid it in the future. This happens in both a physical and biological way. When we are in pain, our bodies release a big surge of cortisol that connects every neuron active at that present moment. The next time we are close to a similar kind of danger, our bodies create an advanced warning system that turns on the cortisol in our body to warn us that pain is approaching again. Therefore, instead of going through the same pain over and over again, cortisol creates a sense of dread that motivates you to do whatever it takes to stop the pain from reoccurring.

In the article, a reptile is used as an example. When you see a reptile basking in the sun, you may think it’s the picture of happiness but in actuality, the reptile is much stressed. A lizard is in constant danger of being eaten alive when it is out in the open.  The lizard would prefer to be hiding under a rock and it often does however hypothermia and hunger set in and trigger cortisol. The cortisol is what sends the reptile out into the run scanning for predators retuning only when its metabolic needs are met. Essentially, a reptile is always running for pain and its brain is designed for the job.

Nowadays, with social media overwhelming us with information, we have evolved a new kind of pain: social pain.  Unlike in the wild, most of us do not feel we are in imminent danger. However, we are still helpless and vulnerable and need social support to survive.  The pain you experience before age eight and during puberty build superhighways in your brain that are paved by the myelin, a brain chemical that flows in those years.  Therefore, the pain of your youth connected neurons that turn on your cortisol today. Each of us builds pain pathways because our brain is designed to avoid dangers such as touching fire more than once.

Your brain and your human cortex work together to promote survival but often we may have a different perception of what survival looks like. Our brain relies on circuits build in youth prior to when we acquired a sophisticated knowledge of what survival really meant. This is why simple situations like a bad hair day can feel like a survival thread despite your best intentions. Once our basic needs are met, a social threat is interpreted as just as destructive as a real survival threat in our minds.

The brain we have inherited fights for survival, not happiness.  The structure of the mammal brain manages cortisol in areas of the brain like the amygdala, the hippocampus and the hypothalamus. As humans, we use the limbic system together with our big cortex to promote our society. As a result there are tons of extra neurons to find potential threats. When cortisol is release, it inevitably finds the threat it is looking for. This triggers more cortisol which can be dangerous. You must understand how the brain operates to gain control over its natural responses. You are able to stop the cycle if stress when you understand the operating system we’ve inherited.

Society is often blamed as the cause of our unhappiness. However, your brain will go there whether you want to or not. Our brain has a tendency to resort to whatever stressor that exists and cause us to feel unhappy. Even if a situation is not linked to our survival, the way our brain response in relation to cortisol can cause us to believe that a problem is of a greater magnitude.

The world is a scary place, however it is important to redirect your thoughts in a more useful way. People will always resort to stress and unhappiness as a response to uncomfortable or painful situations. Cortisol tries to help us stay away from harm. When it comes to addiction, addicts may resort to drug use to overcome feelings of stress and unhappiness. The release of dopamine from drug sue mask the feelings of stress to survive.

Now that you know how your brain operates, you can create new habits to help you overcome unhappiness in the long run:

  1. Cortisol is metabolized in twenty minutes if you do not feed it.
  2. Distract yourself for twenty minutes with someone that will not frustrate you to overcome your feelings of unhappiness.
  3. Go back one minute to take a calm look at what triggered you to see if you can gather a clear picture.
  4. Remind yourself that you are safe because you can manage real threats and ignore false ones.

Do not resort to distracting yourself with food, alcohol or drugs. Find other ways of engaging your attention. The point is to overcome those feelings and find ways to make your brain feel good. The brain we have is designed for survival, not happiness but you can make the decision today to be happy. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-777-9588.


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