How does our brain process negative thoughts?

How does our brain process negative thoughts?

7 June 2015
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The training principle

When we train a muscle every day, it becomes larger, heavier, and more powerful. When we do not use a muscle for an extended period of time, it reduces. This is called muscular atrophy in the medical world. It can take months to re-train your muscle after you start using it again.

Training of our brain in stress, anxiety, burnout, or depression

The same thing goes for our brain. Modern visual technology allows us to measure and map the activity in certain parts of our brain. This means that we have slowly started to understand the mechanism which makes one thing in a pessimistic way when one has a depression, experiences stress, or has a burnout. This mechanism is the same mechanism which is triggered in a muscle which is not used in the right way.

Hyperactive negative thoughts are developed in your right prefrontal cortex

In the right front part of your brain, just above your eyeball, you will find your right prefrontal cortex (PFC). This is the part of the brain which is responsible for your negative thoughts. For people who have thoughts negatively for a long time or experience depression, medical visualization has shown that this part of the brain is hyperactive or overly developed. You could say that it sort of looks like an over-trained muscle in a body builder who uses too many steroids.

Under-developed positive thoughts are developed in your left prefrontal cortex

On the top, left part of your brain, you will find the part which is responsible for your positive and optimistic thoughts. During periods of feeling down, pessimism, stress, or depression, this zone seems to be a bit smaller than the right side. It is under-developed.

What does therapy do to your brain?

Recent studies show that different therapeutic techniques like meditation, thankfulness training and other techniques, can re-balance this left-right equilibrium. Slowly but surely the volume of the scan of your left prefrontal cortex (which holds the positive thoughts) will increase, compared to the right prefrontal cortex of which the volume will be shown to decrease in the picture. This change does not happen suddenly, just like a sudden re-training of a muscle with atrophy will not happen overnight.

30 days to re-train your brain

Some studies suggest that you need to spend about 30 days to experience significant changes in the brain. This seems logical when one considers that many antidepressants also take about three weeks or longer until their positive effects start to show.

Patience and perseverance pay off

While much of this research is still in its starting phases, and we will likely draw much more accurate conclusions in 10 years’ time or so, it still seems reasonable to assume that one would need patience and perseverance to recover from a stress-related cause – much like physically revalidating after breaking one’s leg, for example.

Look for social support around you

It is very important to prepare yourself so you can keep your motivation going for a few weeks. That is why it is smart to look for the support of friends or family, so they can keep you going on difficult days where you are less motivated. It is worth the effort, because your brain can change in order to cure themselves from stress, anxiety, burnout, or depression. Have a doctor as your guide, or sign up for an online self-help program which guides you in this. Eventually, your doctor could also refer you to a proper therapist, in case you need more help.
The message mainly is: do not give up! Pick the proper treatment and then stick to it.

Self-test for negative thoughts and feelings

Do you want to know to what extent stress, tension, anxiety, or even feelings of depression affect you? Then simply test this by answering a short test with 21 short questions.

Paul Koeck, MD


Take the free self test now