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Your limbic system is an ancient collection of brain structures located deep within the brain. The limbic system is the emotional part of your brain and processes your sense of smell, stores highly charged emotional memories, and affects all sleep and appetite cycles, moods, sexuality, and bonding.

Depression is primarily a result of poor communication between the brain’s thinking prefrontal cortex and limbic system. Together, they make up the fronto-limbic system, which regulates your emotional state. When not functioning optimally, depression can result.

How Your Limbic System Contributes To Depression

The limbic system primarily includes four brain regions, which each contribute to and exhibit symptoms of depression differently.

Stress and the Hypothalamus

Elevated stress is both a cause and a symptom of depression. The hypothalamus regulates several hormones and controls the body’s stress response. It can sound the alarm, sending your body into fight or flight mode and raise stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol. In The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, Alex Korb describes the hypothalamus like this:

It’s like a military base waiting to deploy troops to deal with stress. When you’re depressed, it’s a base on high alert — it has a hair-trigger response, making it difficult to just relax and be happy. Finding ways to calm the hypothalamus is therefore one of the best ways to reduce stress.

Anxiety and the Amygdala

The amygdala primarily mediates anxiety and fear. Studies have shown that people with depression have higher amygdala reactivity and their amygdala stays active longer than people without depression. This means that a depressed brain reacts stronger and fixates longer on emotionally charged information making it harder to remain calm and rational. A calmer amygdala means a calmer, happier you.

Memory and the Hippocampus

The primary job of the hippocampus is to turn short-term memories into long-term ones. It’s like your brain’s “save” button. A depressed brain often can’t recall happy memories but doesn’t have any trouble remembering every little detail of the bad stuff, which can be blamed on the hippocampus. In depression, research has found that the hippocampus tends to have abnormal activity and reduced size.

Attention and the Cingulate Cortex

Difficulty concentrating and hyper-focusing on the negative, both symptoms of depression, are controlled by the cingulate cortex. The front, the anterior cingulate cortex, acts as a gateway between the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex, playing a big role in depression. The anterior cingulate cortex notices all of your mistakes, dwells on everything that’s wrong, and is a central part of the pain circuit. Alex Korb likens it to the screen on your computer. Even though there’s lots of data on your computer, the screen shows only the open tab, impacting what you do and how you feel.

How Changing Your Thoughts Changes Your Limbic System

Your thoughts cause a cascade of changes in your body right down to your genes and can either hurt or help your limbic system.

In his book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life: The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety, Depression, Obsessiveness, Lack of Focus, Anger, and Memory Problems, Dr. Daniel G. Amen explains it this way:

When the deep limbic system is overactive, it sets the mind’s filter on “negative.” People who are depressed have one dispiriting thought after another. When they look at the past,they feel regret. When they look at the future, they feel anxiety and pessimism. In the present moment, they’re bound to find some thing unsatisfactory. The lens through which they see themselves, others, and the world has a dim grayness. They are suffering from automatic negative thoughts or ANTs.

Help Depression By Healing Your Limbic SystemANTs are those negative, discouraging, critical thoughts and beliefs stemming from your subconscious mind. They’re based on implicit memories and fears accumulated over your life and literally shape your mind and brain. According to Dr. Amen, there are nine types of ANTs:

  • All or nothing – Everything is good or bad.
  • Always thinking – Over generalizing with terms like always, never, every time, and everyone.
  • Focusing on the negative – Focusing on the negative aspects of situations and ignoring or discounting the positives.
  • Personalizing –  Projecting innocuous events with personal meaning.
  • Guilt beating – Using shame and guilt to control your behavior with words like “should”, “must”, “ought to”, and “have to.”
  • Labeling – When you call yourself or someone else names or use negative terms to describe them.
  • Fortune-telling – Predicting the worst catastrophe possible when you really don’t know what will happen. (This is a natural tendency of your brain.)
  • Mind reading – When you assume that you know somebody else’s motivation or what they’re thinking without checking with them.
  • Blame – Blaming others for your problems and not taking responsibility for your own successes and failures.
  • Thinking with your feelings –  Believing negative thoughts/feelings without ever questioning them.

Becoming aware of your ANTs, noticing how your body reacts to them, challenging them, and consciously choosing better thoughts that support you and your goals can change negative thinking patterns. Byron Katie’s exercise, called The Work, is a great tool for working with your thoughts.

Healing The Limbic System

Per Dr. Amen, the prescription for healing your limbic system is:

Kill the ANTs – Become aware of your moment-to-moment thoughts and consciously work with them to choose your beliefs and actions. Your goal is to notice, challenge, and choose your thoughts before your mind believes it and body reacts to it, and before they affect your relationships, work, and other areas of your life. This is the practice of mindfulness.

Surround yourself with people who provide positive bondingThe attitudes of others are contagious.  Amen writes, “The mood and thoughts of others directly affect your limbic system. How our deep limbic system functions is essential to life itself. Spend time with people who enhance the quality of your limbic system rather than those who cause it to become inflamed.”

Protect your children with limbic bonding – One study found that teenagers who had deep limbic bonds with their parents, felt loved and connected, had significantly lower teen pregnancies, drug use, violence, and suicide. Amen suggests spending 20 minutes per day with a child, doing something they want to do, during which you notice the good and do more listening than talking.

Build people skills to enhance limbic bondsResearch has shown that stronger emotional bonding improves the function of the limbic system, as in mother and child or life partners. Make your relationships a priority. Take responsibility for yourself and your actions, make it a point to communicate and deal with problems as they arise, make time for, appreciate, and look for the good in your relationships.

Recognize the importance of physical contact – Your limbic system is involved in physical bonding as well as emotional. Touch is essential to life and being deprived of human touch alters a baby’s developing brain. Touch is similarly crucial to an adult brain and the healing power of touch has been noted irrefutably. Touch your children or your partner. Give hugs. Give or get a massage.

Surround yourself with great smells – Your limbic system processes your sense of smell. Smells cause your brain to produce neurochemicals and hormones that balance and regulate bodily systems. Pleasing smells affect your brain and moods positively. Diffuse essential oils. Take a scented bath. Surround yourself with flowers.

Build a library of wonderful memories – Your limbic system stores highly charged emotional memories – both happy and sad. Depressed people tend to recall memories consistent with their mood, which causes the release of neurochemicals and reinforces depressive brain circuits. By making the effort to remember positive things, you can induce different chemical patterns and tune into happier mental states. Make a go-to happy memory list, including vivid details down to feelings and smells.

Move your body – Physical exercise can be very healing to your brain and limbic system. In How Exercise Helps Your Brain, I write:

Research is showing that physical exercise improves mood, memory, attention, creativity, and learning and reduces depression, age related decline, and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Support your limbic system – Your limbic system and brain need a diet with an ample supply of good fats, proteins, and complex carbohydrates. Consider supplementing. Amen recommends l-tryptophan, inositol (from the B vitamin family), tyrosine, and dl-phynylalanine, and that you check with your doctor before taking.

Consider limbic medications – Antidepressant medications can help normalize limbic system activity. For best results, combine with other practices.

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  1. Sandra Pawula Reply

    It’s interesting how some of the changes in the brain due to depression are similar to ones that occur in some people as the result of trauma. I’ve never heard of ANTS before! It’s liberating to know we can change these patterns though it may take time. Thank you!

  2. I’ve been eliminating those pesky ants for a while now Debbie…though every now and then something happens and they burst through. But it’s easier to replace them with the ideas that move me forward as I continue to practice. 🙂

    • Good for you, Elle. Working with our thoughts and exterminating the ANTs is a daily practice. It’s part of a mentally healthy lifestyle for me.

  3. Ooooooh those ANTS! Great write up of the different types of difficult thoughts Debbie, and I can already identify plenty of them since I got up this morning! But the more I can see them, the easier it is to shoo them gently out of my life.

    • Ellen, even though I know the ANTs all too well, they still creep in sometimes. Being aware of and challenging them them is continual – maybe for everyone?

    • Angela Leen Reply

      I like how you included to “gently” shoo them away. Reminds me of a log on a river; just let it pass

  4. Thank you, Clay, for your kind words. I’m with you. I think for many, depression , stress, and anxiety is a learned way of life, which can be unlearned. For some it isn’t, but for many of us it can be as simple as what you suggest, starting with 3 things to work on this week. and then 3 more next week. Small changes add up to big results.

  5. Excellent article, Debbie. I love Dr. Amen’s suggestion of spending 20 minutes per day with a child, doing something they want to do, during where you notice the good and do more listening than talking. These positive activities do help with our kids feeling better about themselves and will encourage less negative behavior including drug use.

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  7. Dave Meeks Reply


    I’m math-phobic. Any exercises I can do to re-orient my brain around the subject? Thanks.

    • Dave,

      Me too! – especially after my brain injury. As with any fear, the only way for your brain to get over it is to be exposed to it. 🙂

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  9. I think meditationis the best cure for depression, It also helps to overcome meditation as it makes your mind more stable.

    • I think meditation can help everything! It has for me. However, I do know some people with marginal results…but that’s still good!

  10. Can it help in heartbreak related pain and grief?
    I mean, limbic system is related to strong emotional memories and the feelings associated with them.
    Right now. I just can’t even think of thinking about that emotion, though it’s strong, it’s highly negative.
    Any advice, to make positive use of my “Strong emotions”?
    Anywhere, where I see beautiful people in love, although they signify a positive emotion, the exact negative gets triggered in my mind and the pain associated comes almost immediately.
    What can I do?

  11. This really made me understand the brain n depression way more! I was on depression pills for a while n the side effects were bad n although they seemed to work.i just wanted so desperately to live without them and not have to feed my body chemicals.I cut down on the pills before I stopped taking them but the withdrawal symptoms were still pretty bad.its been about a month since I stopped taking them&I’m still struggling But I need to be the strong women I know I am&Find natural ways to cope

    • Alexis, I’m glad it helped you understand what’s going on. Depression is complex. I applaud your efforts to change. Stick with it and persist. Things will improve. You can make lifestyle modifications to help also! All the best to you! 🙂

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