How Your Brain Reacts To Setbacks

There isn’t much worse than that sinking feeling you get when things have not gone according to plan. Whether it’s a project not going to plan or unforeseen circumstances disrupting our progress at work, it’s not something any of us enjoy.

A recent study highlights how this sinking feeling is linked with a rather unusual type of brain activity.  The kind of downer we often experience when things go wrong has been linked with two distinct neurotransmitters inside the brain. It is the way these neurotransmitters react that determines just how disappointed we tend to be in response to adverse circumstances.

Interestingly, this kind of dual response is a relatively rare occurrence in the brain. Scientists believe it only occurs in two more situations, and both see the brain exhibit a combination of enhancing and dampening behaviours to gauge the level of response.

Looking inside disappointment

The study saw a team of academics, led by researchers from the University of California, explore just how, and indeed why, two neurotransmitters are released when we experience disappointment.

"The more glutamate is released relative to GABA (or gamma-aminobutyric acid to you and me - ed), the greater the ’disappointment’ signal in the brain is likely to be; and the less glutamate is released relative to GABA, the smaller the ’disappointment’ signal should be," the researchers declared.

The link between neural activity and disappointment is not a new one, with previous studies highlighting how depression has links with the lateral habenula part of the brain. Experiments conducted with monkeys have highlighted how this part of the brain fires into life when the monkeys experience disappointment at not receiving something they had been primed to expect.

This latest experiment demonstrates that participants experiencing disappointment produced less GABA in relation to glutamate than their non-disappointed peers. When the participants were given an anti-depressant, these levels returned to normal, which was taken as a sign that disappointment levels also dropped as a result.

"Our study suggests that one of the ways in which serotonin alleviates depression is by rebalancing the brain’s processing of negative life events through the balance of glutamate and GABA in the habenula," the researchers declared. "We may now have a precise neurochemical explanation for why antidepressants make some people more resilient to negative experiences."

What does this mean in practical terms?

Of course, whilst this is fascinating stuff, what does it mean in practical terms?  The researchers centered most of their conclusion on the pharmacological aspects of their findings, with suggestions about the changes required in antidepressants as a result of their findings.

For instance, they advocate a shift away from drugs that target serotonin, as is common today, because serotonin is also used by the brain and the nervous system for many rather useful things. These include the control of our sleep, appetite and memory, all of which tend to get affected alongside any depression we may suffer from.

As for some less drug based advice, that was in rather less evident supply. At least we now understand a bit more about what is going on inside our minds when we experience disappointment. The best we can do is to ensure we have the kind of mindset that views such setbacks as learning opportunities, rather than anything that reflects too heavily upon ourselves as individuals. That appears the best way to cope with any setbacks that occur in life.

Image: Wikimedia




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