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Why Your Brain Won't Let Go of Small Stressors

And how you can help it to move on, improving your mood and well-being.

Key points

  • Hanging onto negative mood from small daily stressors prolongs their effect.
  • Those of us who move on quicker from a negative event have better day-to-day mood and higher well-being.
  • An area of the brain called the amygdala plays a role. The amygdala alerts us to threats and can become overactive.
  • There are simple things you can do to help yourself let go and move on from daily hassles.
Tengyart/Unsplash
Source: Tengyart/Unsplash

Imagine your new puppy just peed on your carpet or you dropped your bowl of pasta and it splattered all over the kitchen floor. Imagine there was an accident on the freeway, and you were late to a meeting, or your flight got delayed for an hour. Life is full of these small, negative moments, which researchers call "daily hassles." While these events are stressful in the moment, they probably won't cause a long-term impact unless your brain hangs onto them and your negative mood lingers. This can create further stressors like provoking an argument with your partner or eating too much to reduce stress and then feeling shame about doing it. In a new study, researchers at the University of Miami studied whether holding onto small negative events impacts your long-term mood and well-being.

The effects of letting your negative mood linger

Previous studies have focused more on how intensely your brain reacts to negative events, whereas this study looked at duration or how long your brain hangs onto the negative reaction. If the emotion centers of your brain are slower to recover from the many daily hassles we all experience, this can prolong your feelings of being stressed out, which may spill over into the rest of your day, leading to a prolonged negative mood.

The researchers analyzed data from 52 middle-aged people who were participants in the larger Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study. Each night for about a week, the participants answered questions about what stressors they had experienced that day and their daily positive and negative moods. The study participants also viewed a series of positive and negative images interspersed with images of neutral facial expressions. At the same time, their brains were scanned in real-time using FMRI technology which can assess which areas of the brain light up in response to different objects or events.

Some people's brains are wired to hang onto the negative

The findings highlight the role of a part of your emotional brain called the amygdala, which becomes active when your brain detects a threat. The amygdala communicates with another part of your brain called the hypothalamus to generate a "fight or flight" response, which involves revving up your neurotransmitters and hormones like cortisol to take action against a threat. When the threat is over, your amygdala calms down.

Looking at the brain data, questionnaires, and daily reports, the researchers found that the amygdala does indeed play a role in prolonging or shortening the impact of small, negative events. People whose left amygdalae held onto negative stimuli for a shorter time reported feeling more positive and fewer negative emotions in their day-to-day lives. This group also had better long-term well-being, presumably because of lesser spillover of negative reactions. On the other hand, people whose left amygdalae were slower to recover and let go of the negative images reported more negative and less positive emotions day to day.

These findings suggest that people differ in how much they sweat the small stuff or let a traffic jam ruin their evenings. Some of us are able to brush off the small, negative moments in life and move on, while others of us have brains that don't let go so quickly and are more wired to hold onto the negative. We all know people whose stress spills over into whatever they do and others who have high-stress jobs but don't take the stress home with them in the evening. Other research shows that stress and negative mood are contagious. The longer you are stressed, the more likely your family, friends, or colleagues will "catch" the negative vibes, creating a more stressful environment overall.

Why some people move on quicker than others

This study didn't assess why some people are able to let go while others have more prolonged stress reactions. Temperament probably plays a part. We all have our own "set-points" for happiness, which we tend to return to over time, no matter what is going on. If you have experienced trauma and childhood adversity, your brain may become more vigilant for threat and less able to let go and relax. We also learn from our parents how "bad" or threatening negative events are. If you see your parents overreact to stress when you are growing up, you may do the same as an adult. Also, depression tends to run in families and has a genetic component. We don't know for sure what the explanation is, but these are some possibilities.

How you can rewire your brain to move on

Are there ways to train your brain to let go of negative moods and thoughts more quickly? The following strategies may help:

Interrupt cycles of rumination — If you find yourself going over and over a negative event in your mind without making any progress, you may be caught in a repetitive cycle of rumination. Rumination prolongs negative mood, so it's important to notice when it's happening and deliberately focus on something else like folding the laundry, talking to a friend, reading a book, or exercising. You can put an elastic band around your wrist and pull on it when you notice the beginnings of rumination.

Meditate — Regular practice of mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase activity in the left-brain areas that process positive mood and decrease activity in right-brain areas associated with negative mood. There are many online apps that provide guided meditations to help you.

Broaden the view — Stress and negative moods make you micro-focus on the details. In so doing, you may lose touch with the big picture of your life, including all the positive things you have like friends and family, a steady job, a relationship, an education, and so on. Guide yourself to think of the bigger picture.

Time travel — Changing your time perspective can influence your mood. Ask yourself if you will still care about this event in five hours, five days, five months, or five years. Most of the time, if it's a daily hassle, the answer is "no."

In summary, it's important to become more mindful of when you are letting a reaction to a minor stressor linger for too long. Reorienting your brain to let go will improve your mood and overall satisfaction with life.

References

Nikki A. Puccetti, Stacey M. Schaefer, Carien M. van Reekum, Anthony D. Ong, David M. Almeida, Carol D. Ryff, Richard J. Davidson, Aaron S. Heller. Linking Amygdala Persistence to Real-World Emotional Experience and Psychological Well-Being. The Journal of Neuroscience, 2021; JN-RM-1637-20 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1637-20.2021

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