Ever wondered why you just can’t seem to get over your childhood trauma – that constant, underlying depressive, hopeless state. Deep down you don’t feel any positive emotion. You feel stuck in a deep, dark black hole. Life seems a drag. Nothing seems to work. You feel flat, can’t seem to push through the negativity. Like you are in the grip of some evil spirits.
Don’t guilt-trip yourself for being weak – you’re not wholly responsible. It’s not psychological, it’s physical.
Blame the habenula for this negative state of mind. Only recently researchers have learned how this small but vital part of the brain affects our mental state.
The habenula plays an important role in regulating behavioral responses to stress. It connects the limbic system i.e amygdala to other parts of the brain.
What is The Habenula?
The habenula along with the pineal gland is part of the epithalamus. It is a tiny area in the middle of your brain. Located between the thalamus and the stalk of the pineal gland. It comprises of two parts the medial habenula (MHb) and the lateral habenula (LHb).
The medial habenula controls motor function, primary reinforcement, and hedonic state, while the lateral habenula is responsible for memory, reward prediction, and depression.
It is uniquely positioned both anatomically and functionally as the circuit-breaker. Allowing it to mediate our emotional responses to environmental cues. Additionally, the habenula also controls our serotonin and dopamine release neurons.
The Anti-Reward System
The habenula encodes and retains memories of negative emotional experiences. That’s why it is also known as the brain’s negativity center or “anti-reward system.
The habenula stores adverse experiences and how to avoid future unpleasant situations. Furthermore, it has been postulated that the habenula is involved in encoding information about disappointment, punishment, and betrayal. Even painful physical stimuli memories, like electric shocks, are stored in the habenula.
Just as the reward system is meant to encourage behavior, the anti-reward system is meant to curb it. It ensures you don’t make the same mistake again. The next time you are prepared as in childhood trauma, you learn the art of walking on egg-shells.
No wonder survivors of childhood trauma have hyperactive habenula. Since it is a major source of the survival-oriented negativity bias within the brain.
Habenula Is Just Keeping Us Safe
The habenula regulates our reward areas and helps us to learn from our past experiences. According to research, the lateral habenula may play a critical role in decision-making. This tiny region of the brain is our guiding light with which to weigh our options and make the best choice possible.
Hey watch out ‘Dad is drunk’ or ‘Mom is in a nasty mood’ or ‘Creepy Cousin in here’. However, if these types of negative experiences keep playing in our lives. our habenula does not relax back to normal.
Moreover, it continues to send signals at inappropriate times due to the faulty program of the past. It thinks it is keeping us safe.
Nevertheless, an over-active habenula ensures we continue to live in a constant state of dread. This also suppresses our dopamine neurons.
Which means we don’t feel excited about anything. We feel depressed and suicidal. All because our habenula won’t shut the f**k up.
Habenula – Connected To The Limbic System
Usually, when we discuss stress and trauma, we think amygdala, a key center in our limbic system. The amygdala receives information from the external and internal environment then send signals to vital areas of the brain like the hypothalamus to trigger a “fight-or-flight.
However, what happens when none of these responses are possible as in the case of childhood trauma. The habenula receives life-saving information from the limbic system and basal ganglia and kicks in the freeze response.
Gradually, this faulty default freeze state gets wired in our brain circuitry. It is all hopeless. Life is not worth the bother. And wham we are caught in a dark state of depression.
The habenula is responsible for this learned helplessness.
Childhood Trauma, Depression & Habenula
It is common knowledge now that early childhood abuse and trauma increases our risk of developing depression and anxiety-related disorders by over 80%. Moreover, trauma predisposes one to develop not just mental illnesses but also physical illnesses.
The lateral habenula (LHb) region of the brain is associated with stress and depression. Studies have shown that the activity of LHb neurons increases when an individual experiences unpleasantness.
During an ongoing stressful situation, corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) hormone is released. Furthermore, dopamine signaling in the brain shuts down due to the CRF stress hormone by increasing LHb activity. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of the brain that signals feelings of reward or pleasure.
In most cases of childhood trauma, children have to deal with a cascade of deprivations and abuses. In my own case, I had to deal with the death of my mother, an abusive father, sexual molestations, silent treatment, and other emotional and physical abuses.
This literally changes the “wiring” in the brain. A child begins believing life is not worth the bother. He reacts to life as if it were joyless, deary life-sentence.
Habenula and Dopamine
Dopamine is one of our feel-good neurochemicals. It regulates movement, attention, learning, and emotional responses. More importantly, it enables us not only to see rewards but to take action to achieve them.
It is the chemical motivator we need to feel excited about the life we are living. Without dopamine, life seems pointless, might as well lie down and sleep forever.
Due to the faulty brain wiring, the hyperactive habenula continues to send signals – avoid any action at all costs, though we may no longer be in danger.
This also effectively suppresses the dopamine circuitry. Thereby, dampening our enthusiasm for life.
Sapolsky – Dopamine, Anticipation, & Relationships
Changing Your Brain’s Negativity Center
According to recent studies, Ketamine has been proven useful in treatment-resistant depression. Ketamine directly targets the habenula and stops the habenula neurons from over-firing. The calming down of the habenula using fast-acting ketamine, allows dopamine neurons to fire again. Thus relieving depression.
Additionally, clinical trials have shown that deep brain stimulation (DBS) to the habenula has proven to be an effective and safe treatment for patients with depression.
What Helped Me
As I write this I can only feel grateful that continuous black cloud that hung over me for years has nearly dissipated.
Safe Supportive Connections – Love heals your traumatized brain. Oxytocin modulates reward circuitry and dopamine neuron activity, When we feel loved we feel alive, we are excited about life.
Experiencing the Healing Power of Nature – Nature is good for our mind body and spirit. It restores and rejuvenates us. Lying on the beach listening to the waves crashing on the shore naturally changes my brain waves from stressed beta to relaxing alpha-theta.
Sound Healing -Sleep -Theta Waves – The habenula is closely linked to sleep and our circadian rhythm. This can happen only when our brain can move into a theta state. Healing sound music is an effective way to effortlessly ease your brain into theta-delta state where deep healing occurs.
Indulging in Fun-Filled activities – Going on food-foraging trips have been a continuous dopamine boosting activity. Doing something you are excited about automatically releases dopamine.
Gratitude and Faith – Feeling grateful is a daily effort particularly when you are depressed. But gratitude does change your brain. With some effort on our part, we can hone our gratitude skills. It means becoming mindful of our blessings.
What’s most intriguing is that both the habenula and pineal gland constitute the epithalamus. Two parts of the brain that are so divergent in their functions yet so close to each other. The habenula which is the seat of negativity and the pineal gland. our spiritual third eye, the point of divine connectivity. Making it easy for the pineal to overrule the habenula.
Faith can over-ride our limited physical reality.
Being In Control – Change is Possible
Life experiences may have damaged our brain but we can overcome this. Recent brain research has shown our brain is plastic. We can overwrite the faulty childhood programs. When we believe we are co-creators, not helpless victims miracles happen.
No doubt, dragging yourself out of bed every day is tough. But then life is not easy. Believing that change is possible is vital to our healing.
Dr. Bruce Lipton, in his best-selling book, Biology of Belief– Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles states
‘Beliefs and thoughts alter cells in your body’.
Get up thinking ‘I am the master of my genes and life, not a helpless victim’, it will kick-start your dopamine neurons.
However, if you can’t force your mind to think upbeat, make use of technology. Listen to positive guided meditation For the last 3 years I have been doing that. Healing takes time, but it happens in gradual increments.
Keep at it. don’t give up.
Don’t let negative habenula keep you stuck in the past.
Image Source: Pixabay
Read – Breaking The Habit of Being Yourself – How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One – Dr. Joe Dispenza