10 Must Do's When: Giving Birth to the Blues

The science and art of being brokenhearted

Posted Apr 20, 2014

 Balance is the Universe's cardinal concern, so life is driven by a differential engine (male-female, proton-electron, north-south, negative-positive, etc).  To observe this engine at work, humans must contrast and compare.  For example, pleasure would be indistinguishable without pain as a basis of comparison. Likewise, to have balance, what is on left, must be equal to what is on the right.  Therefore, joy and anguish, victory and defeat, and loss and gain are equally essential. Yet, we detest and avoid “life’s negatives," and celebrate and chase “life’s positives,”  because, curiously, humans only want selective pleasures and designated treasures.   However, nature edits and time punctuates. Thus, all gold someday loses its luster, as every ring eventually surrenders its stone, and all those who walk in love, will one day walk alone. So although the joys of life are palatable, whereas the sorrows are an acquired taste, having this acquired taste is a must. This is easier said than done, therefore in the interim, when life gets untasty, humans get the blues. This is especially true for compulsive overeaters, boozehounds, druggies, and messy love junkies, who seem to be more blues-prone than most.    

Neurobiology of the Blues

We internalize somatosensory information from the external world (what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste) by ligands binding to receptors on the surface of our cells. Think of the human body as a huge company.  Ligands are like many different keys, each fitting a specific door lock. Receptors are the door locks, which open various rooms containing different inventory items and employees (i.e. intracellular processes). Your five senses are like the shipping and receiving department, constantly bringing in raw materials and shipping out manufactured products. Each arrival results in some key turning some lock to open some door to dispatch work to the employees behind that door, who will use the materials in that room. Some events are routine business as usual, and some events are not. Obviously, the latter would cause different doors to open and different internal movement.  Emotion would be the company climate, i.e. the things that make a company a fun, productive, happy, profitable place, or the opposite. 

Anger, fear, joy, sadness, disgust and shame are the discreet emotions. However, life is contextual. Just as working at Google is different from working at Bethlehem Steel, each person comes with his or her own emotional climate or preset, based on nature and nurture. While the discreet emotions may be the only buttons on our dials, what happens when those buttons are pushed depends on whose dial they are on.  For example, a rainy day in Seattle is typical, whereas in LA it is rare and exciting, just as a sunny day in Seattle is cause for celebration, and your usual boring, perfect, weather in LA. Thus, not only are your emotions individualized by nature and nurture, they are constantly evolving and vulnerable to environmental climatic discrepancies.  This is why on some days a slap across the face by life merely stings, whereas on other days, it lands a TKO (technical knock out). Having the blues is a euphemism for life’s TKO’s.  So, on those days when your life is a freight train whistle and a stray dog away from a Johnny Cash song, it is time to Give Birth to the Blues (GBTB), which is not only an acronym, it is phonetically fabulous… “Geebee-teebee.”

Your GBTB Protocol

Having your GBTB protocol in place is similar to meal planning.  It is easier to make healthier meal choices if you plan your meals ahead, thereby removing mealtime decision-making and decreasing the likelihood of poor choices. Likewise, if you have a standing GBTB protocol, you can incorporate sage choices that are proactive rather than reactive.  In addition, the brain likes ritualistic and repetitive behaviors.  Every behavior causes specific pattern of neuronal firing in the brain. The more you engage in a behavior, the more efficiently the underlying neuronal firing becomes. That is partly why, “practice makes perfect.”  

Culturally based rituals activate the basal ganglia and cortically based circuits and influence emotional brain function. Rituals are habits. If habits were rivers and streams, cultural rituals would be the Nile. So adding a culture-specific aspect that works for you is beneficial. Note: You might gravitate towards something that is seemingly curious. However, who knows what his or her racial admixture is, since most of us are mutts. Therefore, you might look white enough to be the Editor of the Bavarian Daily, while the blood of the Apache flows in your veins; go with it. Additionally, the deeper you dig, the more similar cultural roots become.

GBTB Wear: The brain loves to associate and anticipate, i.e. when this happens, that will follow. Having a specific GBTB outfit tells your brain, “we are getting ready to GBTB,” so it prepares itself thusly. I usually wear a head-rag, sunglasses, faded jeans, and a Michigan T-shirt beneath an open flannel shirt (a tidbit for your: Who Cares File).

GBTB Soundtrack: Make a soundtrack of your favorite blues music.  There are a gazillion “somebody or something done somebody wrong” songs. Pick your favorite.   Listening to music you enjoy causes dopamine release. Dopamine is the brain’s happy-dance drug.

GBTB Wail List: Like all animal species, humans sang before we talked. Singing has multiple neurochemical benefits. It causes the brain to release natural opiates. It reduces stress and increases Immunoglobulin A, which helps your immune system. Singing increases oxytocin (the love/hug hormone), which makes you feel socially connected even if some Eskimos just put you a slab of ice and pushed you out to sea. Singing modifies automatic systems as well, such as: heart and respiration rates, and perspiration. There is a reason why those old Negro slave spirituals were so powerful.  They released endogenous pain relievers for a group who truly needed pain relief. I highly recommend including some of these songs on your GBTB Wail List.  Most importantly, the songs should be personally meaningful; and do not sing them, wail them.  

GBTB Workout: Physical exercise increases endorphins, raises dopamine levels and has many other neurochemical and physical benefits.  The GBTB workout should be specific to you.  If you have a physical activity that you particularly like, e.g. lifting weights, jumping rope, doing sit-ups, or whatever, go for it. However, I suggest dancing.  Dancing is great exercise, and you can concatenate it with your GBTB Soundtrack.  

GBTB Manual Art: There are more touch receptors in the brain for the hand than there are for most other parts of the body.  Thus, writing with a pencil, sketching or painting is very therapeutic.  There are other therapeutic benefits to painting and sketching, such as dopamine, which will release in anticipation of finishing your project.

Finally, and most importantly: Never desire what you do not have, more than what you have. Never want to be where you are not, more than where you are. Never value what you cannot do, more than what you can do… and, no matter what, always... remain fabulous and phenomenal.

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Molecules of Emotion: Scribner 1997, (Candace B. Pert)

NeuroImage: Volume 16, Issue 2; June 2002, Pages 331–348 Functional Neuroanatomy of Emotion: A Meta-Analysis of Emotion Activation Studies in PET and fMRI

Biological Psychiatry: Volume 1, Issue 5; 1 September 2003, pages 504-514 Neurobiology of emotion perception I: the neural basis of normal emotion perception (Phillips ML, et al)

Annual Review Neuroscience: 2008;31:359-87. doi:10.1146/ annurev.neuro.29.051605.112851.  Habits, rituals, and the evaluative brain. (Graybiel, AM)

About the Author

Billi Gordon, Ph.D., is a co-investigator in the Ingestive Behaviors & Obesity Program, Center for the Neurobiology of Stress, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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