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It is intuitive that a negative attitude and constant complaining are bad for us – but can it really affect our brain? It turns out that there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that negativity can alter our perception of life by changing the connection of the neurons in our brain. This would then result in increased stress levels, which is linked to chronic diseases and mental health problems.
A common perception of complaining, or “venting”, is that people feel better after getting their emotions out. Contrary to popular belief, however, studies have shown that expressing negativity can be bad for the mood of both the complainer and the listener, and here we briefly discuss a few findings on how negativity can impact our well-being.
Do negative thoughts affect the wiring of synapses in our brains?
The synapses in our brain are separated by spaces known as synaptic clefts. When we think, synapses “fire” and send signals across these clefts to other synapses. This forms a bridge by which signals and information and transferred. The exciting thing here is that upon each trigger of an electrical charge, the synapses involved are actually brought closer in proximity to each other. This increases the likelihood that the correct synapses will share the appropriate link and fire together. Consequently, it becomes easier for that particular thought to be triggered.
What all this means is that thinking about something initially makes it easier to think about it again in the future. As such, if a person is constantly unhappy, it makes it more likely that he or she will continue to have negative thoughts if nothing is done about it. On the bright side, though, this also suggests that if we make a conscious effort to think positive thoughts, the positive feedback cycle helps us to become a more optimistic personality as well.
By repeating pessimistic thought processes, synapses that represent these negative inclinations gradually grow closer. Given that the thought that is most likely to surface is the one which can form a bridge between synapses in the shortest period of time, it is unsurprising then that in this case a pessimist would be more likely to remain the way he or she was.
Who we spend time with can change our thinking subconsciously
In view of how negativity can change our behaviour, it is perhaps not all that surprising that who we spend our time with influences our brain as well. The basis of this is primarily linked to how we empathize with others. For instance, when we see another person experiencing some emotion such as joy, sorrow or anger, our brain attempts to fire the same synapses to relate to the observed emotion.
By trying to imagine what the other person is going through, this rewiring of our brain (or the phenomena of “mirror neurons”) can in fact contribute to our patterns of thought without us realizing it – in fact, the activation of this mirror neuron system has been shown in a study to be altered in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These findings were reported based on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data on how brain activation differs between the ASD group and the control group when inferring the intention of an action. Therefore, it would then be logical that if we surround ourselves with people who are generally optimistic, our inclinations towards happy interactions would be greatly enhanced.
Stress can affect our health more directly than we think
In addition to hurting our mental well-being, the act of venting can be detrimental to our physical health as well. For example, anger-related synaptic firing can be bad for our immune system when coupled with an increase in blood pressure, as well as a higher risk of conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart problems.
The main contributing factor to all the negative effects of stress is a hormone in our body known as cortisol. This has been dubbed a “stress hormone”, as the levels of this hormone in our body are drastically elevated when we feel stressed out. In this regard, the release of cortisol by our adrenal glands in response to stressors such as fear is an integral component of our fight-or-flight mechanism. However, prolonged release leads to impaired learning and memory, higher cholesterol levels and blood pressure, and a weakened immune system.
To date, there are numerous studies which demonstrate the profound negative effects of stress on our physical and mental health. For example, it has been shown that cortisol production induced by social aggression and isolation can be a powerful trigger for mental disorders and reduced resilience, particularly for adolescents. To this end, scientists subjected mice that were genetically predisposed to mental illness to social isolation during adolescence. This triggered marked behavioural abnormalities that persisted even when the mice were returned to the group. More importantly, the effects of isolation stretched all the way into adulthood, implying that adolescent stress can cause long-term damage to mental health.
In another study, scientists specifically bred mice to be “bullies”, and then subjected other mice to aggression from these bullies. They found that the “bullied” mice would release cortisol that subsequently led to increased social aversion to other mice. Moreover, this “scared” behaviour in bullied mice disappeared when the cortisol receptors were blocked, indicating that excessive cortisol could lead to decreased resilience.
Taken together, the aforementioned findings highlight the negative effects of stress and could be implicated in the development of treatments for depression and other devastating psychiatric disorders. Additionally, they also suggest that in adolescents predisposed to mental illnesses, efforts to protect them from social stressors such as bullying and neglect could go a long way in reducing the risk of getting these diseases.
Barik, J., Marti, F., Morel, C., Fernandez, S., Lanteri, C., Godeheu, G., Tassin, J., Mombereau, C., Faure, P., & Tronche, F. (2013). Chronic Stress Triggers Social Aversion via Glucocorticoid Receptor in Dopaminoceptive Neurons Science, 339 (6117), 332-335 DOI: 10.1126/science.1226767
Libero, L., Maximo, J., Deshpande, H., Klinger, L., Klinger, M., & Kana, R. (2014). The role of mirroring and mentalizing networks in mediating action intentions in autism Molecular Autism, 5 (1) DOI: 10.1186/2040-2392-5-50
Markram, H. (2011). A history of spike-timing-dependent plasticity Frontiers in Synaptic Neuroscience, 3 DOI: 10.3389/fnsyn.2011.00004
Niwa, M., Jaaro-Peled, H., Tankou, S., Seshadri, S., Hikida, T., Matsumoto, Y., Cascella, N., Kano, S., Ozaki, N., Nabeshima, T., & Sawa, A. (2013). Adolescent Stress-Induced Epigenetic Control of Dopaminergic Neurons via Glucocorticoids Science, 339 (6117), 335-339 DOI: 10.1126/science.1226931
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