Do you ever feel overwhelmed by stress, anxiety, or negative emotions that seem to take control of your life? Or maybe your child is emotionally reactive, angry or easily upset? An overactive limbic system often drives these feelings. The limbic system is that part of the brain regulating our emotional responses.
Julia struggled with anxiety her whole life, and as she explained, “Every part of my body hurt from my brain always being so in overdrive.” Julia's story isn't unique and common when one's amygdala is on fire.
When the limbic system becomes overactive, it can lead to feelings of anxiety and stress, even panic attacks. Unfortunately, in today's fast-paced world, it's not uncommon for our limbic system to be constantly stimulated, leaving us overwhelmed and out of control. Fortunately, there are ways to calm the limbic system and regain balance and calm.
What is the Limbic System?
The limbic system is part of the brain that helps us manage and respond to emotionally coded information. It is situated deep inside the brain, beneath the cerebral cortex, and above the brainstem. It comprises several structures, including the thalamus and hypothalamus, which governs the production of essential hormones and regulates thirst, hunger, and mood. It also has the basal ganglia, responsible for reward processing, habit formation, movement, and learning.
Among these structures, the hippocampus and the amygdala are two of the most significant components of the limbic system. Being strongly linked to the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems, they play a critical role in the body's reaction to stress.
The limbic system also plays a crucial role in regulating our behavioral and emotional responses, particularly those related to our basic survival needs, such as feeding, reproduction, caring for our offspring, and fight-or-flight reactions.
In Julia's case, her brain became so overactivated that it saw everything as a “threat” causing her to activate to things, stressors and sensory information. Her overactive brain was in a near constant state of fight, flight or freeze by the time she began working with us in our BrainBehaviorReset™ Program.
Parts of the Limbic System
Multiple limbic system parts help us navigate potential stressors and manage emotional-coded information.
1. Limbic Cortex
Understanding how the limbic cortex works can help you better support your child and their emotional and behavioral needs. The limbic cortex is an integral part of the brain that helps regulate behavior and emotions in your child.
It acts as a middleman between different areas of the brain to make sure everything is working together smoothly. It is an integration zone for regulating behavior and facilitating communication between brain regions.
The limbic cortex comprises two major parts: the cingulate and parahippocampal gyrus. The cingulate gyrus is an arch-shaped convolution located above the corpus callosum. The frontal region is called the anterior cingulate gyrus or cortex and is a part of the limbic system. It is responsible for processing emotions, regulating behavior, and controlling autonomic motor function.
The parahippocampal gyrus, also known as the hippocampal gyrus, is a cortical region of the brain composed of gray matter that envelops the hippocampus. It belongs to the limbic system and performs a crucial brain function in the encoding and retrieving of memories.
2. Hippocampal Formation
The hippocampal formation usually comprises the dentate gyrus, hippocampus, and subicular cortex. It is situated in the temporal lobe of each cerebral cortex, medial to the lateral ventricle's inferior horn.
The dentate gyrus is a region of the hippocampal formation that plays a crucial role in creating memories related to different sensory experiences. It also helps with learning and memory. Emotionally encoded memories are more likely to be recalled, and some of our earliest childhood memories have strong emotions associated with them. My first memory was getting my ears pierced at 14 months of age.
The hippocampus, a part of the formation, is a complex brain structure located deep in the temporal lobe. Its primary function is to facilitate learning and memory. It is susceptible to harm from various stimuli and is a dynamic, vulnerable component of the brain. Research has indicated that it can be impacted multiple neurological and psychiatric conditions (Dhikav & Anand, 2012).
The subiculum or subicular complex is a necessary part of the hippocampal formation, situated between the hippocampus and other brain parts. It helps these different parts of the brain talk to each other and works together. Although scientists haven't studied it as much as other parts of the brain, it's still very important in helping your brain function properly.
The amygdala is a part of the brain mainly connected to emotions. It's located in the front part of the brain, near the hippocampus, in the medial temporal lobe. The amygdala is like the control center for interpreting things that might be scary or dangerous. When it senses a threat, it triggers a network that makes us feel afraid and helps us react to protect ourselves from the danger.
For Julia, her brain was so activated that her amygdala kept overreacting to the most minor stressors. This triggers a cortisol cascade with adrenal overdrive. Over time, she became physically depleted.
4. Septal Area
The septal area is a crucial part of our brain that plays a vital role in regulating blood flow and separating oxygen-rich from oxygen-poor blood. This can significantly affect mental health, as the brain depends on proper oxygenation and blood flow to function correctly.
Moreover, studies have found that the septal area may be involved in emotional regulation and reward processing, indicating its potential importance in mental health conditions such as depression and addiction.
The hypothalamus is an integral part of our brain that helps us maintain balance and stability, otherwise known as homeostasis. It controls our autonomic nervous system, which manages our heartbeat and breathing. It also helps regulate our hormones, which can impact our mood and overall health.
The hypothalamus plays a significant role in our emotional responses, appetite, body temperature, and sexual behavior. Any disruptions to the hypothalamus could lead to mental health issues like anxiety, depression, or even eating disorders.
The thalamus is like a relay station in our brain that helps us process all the information we receive through our senses, except for the smell. It sends this information to the part of our brain that interprets it, called the cerebral cortex.
The thalamus also affects our learning, memory, sleep, wakefulness, and consciousness. So, any issues with the thalamus could impact our mental health, leading to problems with memory, sleep, or even cognitive processing.
What are the Functions of the Limbic System?
The limbic system is an essential part of our brain that helps regulate many crucial bodily functions, including emotions, memory, and behavior. It's essential for us to experience and express our feelings and to learn and remember things.
The limbic system also helps control our physical responses, like our heart rate and breathing, by communicating with our autonomic nervous system. It also affects our basic instincts and behaviors, like hunger, thirst, and survival instincts.
Why Should the Limbic System Be Calm?
The limbic system must remain calm to regulate our emotional and behavioral responses. So in the perfect world, our brain is in a calm, regulated parasympathetic state. The reality is that kids and their parents are stressed. So, when the limbic system is overly active or agitated, it can lead to excessive emotional reactions, impulsivity, and difficulty controlling behavior.
These can increase stress, anxiety, and negative impacts on overall mental health and well-being. For Julia, her dysregulated limbic system caused her to be easily upset, irritable, and unfocused. She also experienced physical pain because of adrenal burnout. Julia could regulate her brain and body and overcome her anxiety and depression.
Maintaining a sense of calm and balance in the limbic system is essential to ensure healthy emotional and behavioral regulation.
Cultivating relaxation and calmness in your limbic system allows for greater control over your emotions and behaviors, facilitating the ability to make conscious and measured decisions rather than acting impulsively.
By developing an awareness of your limbic system's responses (for Julia, she learned to become aware of physical sensations), you can become more attuned to your emotional state, preventing you from acting out of character or allowing your strong emotions to run wild.
When your limbic system is relaxed, it can help you be a more positive and present version of yourself. This can lead to balanced stress levels, better decision-making skills, and improved emotional regulation.
A relaxed limbic system can also help you respond to situations more effectively and appropriately. This means you'll be better equipped to handle stressful or challenging situations without feeling overwhelmed. The good news is that there are many ways to calm your nervous system, and you only need 10 minutes daily to balance the brain.
On the other hand, just like Julia, an overactive or stressed limbic system can lead to mental health issues like anxiety or depression. By understanding how our limbic system works and learning to keep it relaxed, we can better support our mental health and overall well-being.
How Do the Prefrontal Cortex and Limbic System Influence Emotions?
The prefrontal cortex and limbic system are two essential parts of our brain that work together to regulate our emotions. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making, problem-solving, and impulse control, while the limbic system processes emotions, motivation, and memory.
I always talk about the prefrontal cortex as the “breaks of the brain” because it has much to do with controlling our responses. It also supports the job manager of the brain or executive functions, which impact every aspect of our daily functioning, including learning, attention, and managing stress.
Children with ADHD and executive functioning challenges are more prone to emotional reactivity and can be hypersensitive to criticism. About 70% of those with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder also have Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD). RSD is a clinical condition where an individual experiences emotional reactivity to perceived or real criticism or rejection. The lack of frontal lobe regulatory control is part of this reactivity.
The prefrontal cortex helps control the limbic system by suppressing or enhancing its responses to emotional things. For example, it can help reduce feelings of fear and anxiety by suppressing the amygdala's activity. Julia learned to understand her “fear brain” versus her “Julia brain” to discern what a real thought was versus that fear hijacking her brain.
At the same time, it can enhance feelings of pleasure, reward, and motivation by increasing the activity of the limbic system.
This connection between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system is critical for regulating our behavior and emotions. By understanding how these parts of the brain work together, we can learn and use tools to take control of fears and negative thinking. Studies have shown that disruptions to this connection can lead to mental health issues like anxiety or depression, highlighting the importance of this brain system (Arco & Mora, 2009).
What Part of the Brain Controls Emotions and How?
There are several brain regions involved in processing and managing emotions. The amygdala is a part of our brain that helps us process emotions like fear, pleasure, and anxiety. It's located beside the hippocampus and can also attach emotional significance to memories, making them easier to remember.
The amygdala is also responsible for creating new memories associated with fear. Scientists study this process to learn more about how our brains form and remember memories.
Other parts of the brain that regulate emotions include the hypothalamus, which is involved in feelings of love and attachment. This part of the brain releases hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin, which help us bond with others and feel happy and satisfied.
Even with very young children, we help them understand how their brain works and how they can control what feels like an “out-of-control brain.” We know that certain brain structures are associated with specific clinical conditions, and it is always helpful to understand just how. For example, the amygdala or hypothalamus disruptions can lead to mental health conditions like anxiety or depression (Aragona & Wang, 2009).
Temporal Lobe: What It Does
The temporal lobe is located on the side of the head and is the second largest lobe in the brain. It is responsible for processing sounds, including speech, and is crucial for understanding what people say.
There are two sides to the temporal lobe, with the left being more dominant for language tasks such as speaking, learning, and remembering words. Meanwhile, the right side better remembers nonverbal information like music and pictures.
The temporal lobe uses information from other brain parts and our senses to help us remember things and understand what we hear. It also helps us recognize faces and objects. Without the temporal lobe, understanding speech or remembering words would be challenging. So, this part of the brain is crucial for communication and memory skills.
Mental Health Conditions Related to the Limbic System
The limbic system's role is crucial in numerous complex neurobehavioral disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse and addiction, and Alzheimer's disease (Bari et al., 2014).
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder resulting from a traumatic event, including cognitive, perceptual, affective, physiological, and psychological features. That traumatic event can be a BIG trauma, such as abuse, or a little trauma, such as the medical trauma that many of my PANS/PANDAS families experience or a friendship breakup. It is characterized by hyperarousal, intrusive memories, and avoidance of stimuli associated with the traumatic event.
The lifetime prevalence of PTSD in the US is approximately 6.8%, with 30% of patients still experiencing symptoms after a decade of treatment (Kessler et al., 2005). Functional neuroimaging studies suggest that the amygdala plays a crucial role in PTSD development.
We know that trauma gets stored in the body and can lead to activation. Having been a provider for families from the Sandy Hook School tragedy, I saw overactivation in the limbic system on QEEG brain maps, especially when the individual had a history of other traumas.
2. Substance Abuse and Addiction
Substance abuse and addiction involve a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens (NAc). This area is responsible for the feeling of reward and motivation. Studies on animals and humans show that removing part of the NAc can reduce the urge to seek out drugs or other addictive substances. However, this procedure is irreversible and comes with risks.
The NAc connects the brain's limbic and motor control systems and has two regions: the core and the shell. The shell is responsible for the desire to use a substance, while the core acts as a bridge between the limbic and motor networks. (Gardner, 2011).
3. Alzheimer's Disease
Alzheimer's Disease is a severe condition that affects memory and thinking skills. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for the disease, and medicines that slow down its progression have side effects and do not work for everyone. By 2050, 1 in 85 people worldwide will be affected by this disease, making it essential to develop new treatments (Gao et al., 2003).
The mesial temporal lobe and its connected areas are responsible for forming memories. They have been linked to cognitive and memory problems, such as Alzheimer's disease. These connected regions include the mammillary bodies, anterior nucleus of the thalamus, cingulate gyrus, and basal forebrain cholinergic nuclei.
4. Anxiety Disorder
More and more people are learning about the connection between the limbic system and mood and anxiety disorders. These clinical conditions are caused by disruptions in various brain areas, including neurotransmitter, neuroendocrine, and neuroanatomical pathways. These disruptions can result from compounded stressors, experiences, and genetics.
The emotional centers of the brain, particularly the limbic system, regulate emotional responses, while the prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive functions. Disruptions in the balance of activity between these regions can lead to symptoms of mood and anxiety disorders. The amygdala, an evolutionarily ancient structure, is critical in processing emotionally salient external stimuli and initiating the appropriate behavioral response (Martin et al., 2009).
Autism is a multifaceted neurological condition that uniquely manifests in individuals. The fundamental behavioral characteristics of the disorder are linked to specific brain regions. Changes in the structure and architecture of limbic and neocortical areas and excess cells in the white matter suggest late prenatal or early postnatal origins of autism spectrum disorder (Blatt, 2012).
Does Chronic Stress Reduce Grey Matter in the Hippocampus?
Stress can have serious consequences on the brain and body. Stress is linked with a higher risk for various health issues, including decreased volume and density of gray matter in different brain regions. One study utilized the Gray Matter Brain Health Quotient (GM-BHQ) to evaluate brain health based on Gray Matter Volume (GMV) as an objective measure to assess the relationship between stress and the entire brain.
The study observed 63 healthy adults and obtained their T1-weighted brain structure images. In addition, their stress levels were assessed using three stress scales: the Profile of Mood States (POMS), Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), and Chalder Fatigue Scale (CFS).
Results show that the GM-BHQ was responsive to fatigue and the interplay between stress and fatigue. Specifically, the GM-BHQ might be low in people experiencing fatigue or a combination of fatigue and stress (Kokubun et al., 2018). Therefore, managing stress and fatigue in our daily lives could help prevent a decrease in GM-BHQ, which is synonymous with brain atrophy.
What Part of the Brain is Anger?
Of all the clinical conditions my families deal with, anger is one of the toughest. We know that anger is a response to stress or dangerous situations, just like fear. When someone is in danger and can't escape, they might feel angry or hostile. This reaction is part of the fight-or-flight response. However, many kid's low frustration tolerance can lead to big, overly reactive and angry responses. It can be scary, upsetting and perplexing to deal with.
Like with fear, anger starts with the amygdala activating the hypothalamus. But then, different parts of the prefrontal cortex may get involved in anger. People with damage to this part of the brain might have trouble managing their emotions, especially anger.
The prefrontal cortex also plays a role in controlling angry responses, which means that people with dysregulation in this area will have difficulty controlling their emotions and may show anger and aggressiveness.
What is Limbic System ADD?
Limbic ADD refers to over-emotional ADHD, where an individual's prefrontal cortex is underactive while their deep limbic area, responsible for setting their emotional tone, is overactive. Depression is also linked to overactivity in the limbic area.
ADD stands for Attention Deficit Disorder. Limbic ADD combines typical neurological and physical symptoms of ADD and persistent feelings of sadness. Such sadness is distinct from depression, low energy, negativity, hopelessness or worthlessness, and low self-esteem.
However, mental health professionals distinguish limbic ADD from depression by using brain scans and developmental histories. Doing so helps them identify the appropriate treatment for the condition.
Scans of individuals with limbic ADD show regular brain activity at rest. However, when concentrating, there is reduced activity in the cerebellum, basal ganglia, and the underside of the prefrontal cortex. The common symptoms of limbic ADD include:
- Core ADD or ADHD symptoms
- Guilt feelings
- Low interest in things
- Poor energy
- Lower self-esteem
- Social isolation
- Possible hyperactivity
5 Ways to Calm Your Limbic Systems
Emotions can dominate, or even immobilize, cognitive faculties, triggering the fight-or-flight reaction and causing our bodies to respond accordingly. Julia's family had to constantly deal with her over-emotional responses to small stressors, and it wasn't easy.
Those who experience chronic anxiety disorders may exhibit increased activity in the limbic region, making it hard to break their reactions to everyday stressors. That is why it is important to use methods that promote holistic healing.
Here are the best ways to calm the limbic system:
It is essential to incorporate foods that decrease inflammation into your diet. You should also maintain stable blood sugar levels and supply essential nutrients that support optimal limbic system functioning. Such foods include grass-fed beef, wild-caught seafood, pasture-raised eggs, and vegetables low in carbohydrates and glycemic index.
One's microbiome is significantly impacted by our diet, and consuming a diverse range of nutrient-rich foods is crucial for establishing a healthy gut. In addition, a well-balanced diet encourages the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, supporting the immune system.
The gut breaks down harmful food substances and produces essential vitamins and amino acids that the brain and nervous system need to work correctly. When the microbiome in the gut is imbalanced, it can cause many health problems. Keeping a healthy gut by eating a balanced diet is important for improving mental health.
Engaging in a workout routine for 20-30 minutes, 3-5 times weekly, can aid in preserving your limbic system's health. Studies have shown that aerobic activities like swimming, running, hiking, walking, and cardio, can enhance your brain's cognitive function (Mandolesi et al., 2018).
Scientific studies have demonstrated that aerobic exercise can boost cognitive abilities in children and adults. Exercise has been linked to improved concentration, the ability to shift focus between different tasks, and enhanced working memory capacity (Stern et al., 2019).
Interestingly, the positive effects of aerobic exercise on executive function become even more pronounced with age, potentially offering a means of mitigating age-related cognitive decline. Furthermore, exercise has been found to have therapeutic benefits for various conditions, including Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, depression, and anxiety.
In addition, research indicates that physical activity can be as effective as medication in treating mild-to-moderate depression. Mindfulness practices also fall here, such as participating in a yoga class.
When we lack sleep, the connections between the brain areas become weaker, intensifying the response in the limbic system. Feeling irritable when we don't get enough sleep is easy. Insufficient sleep amplifies our reaction to stressful situations, which can lead to many conflicts.
Sleep deprivation means our cognitive abilities, including learning, memory, attention, and reflexes, are impaired, leading to delayed physical responses.
Getting enough sleep is essential for our body and brain to function at its best. It helps many important processes happen, especially for our brains. When we sleep well, our brains can learn new things and adapt better to different situations, called neuroplasticity.
The brain analyzes and assesses emotions during sleep, particularly the rapid eye movement (REM) stage. Lack of sleep can result in more negative emotions and is a known cause of mental health problems, such as behavioral issues and suicidal thoughts.
It is important to recognize that quality sleep also plays a crucial role in our emotional well-being, which everyone has control over and can improve upon.
Studies have demonstrated that Pulsed ElectroMagnetic Field (PEMF) provides analgesic effects. In a randomized, double-blind clinical trial, patients with chronic localized musculoskeletal, inflammatory, or chronic generalized pain received PEMF treatment through a portable device fitted to their head for 40 minutes, twice daily, for seven days.
Results show a statistically significant difference in pain reduction between PEMF and sham treatment. This test suggests that PEMF is a promising and safe therapeutic option for patients with chronic, nonmalignant pain (Thomas et al., 2007).
The brain's emotional center can influence pain perception. Your mental state is crucial when you experience chronic pain due to the limbic system connection, which is responsible for your emotions. Your perception of pain can vary significantly depending on your mental state.
Neurofeedback therapy is a safe, natural, and effective therapy that enhances brain flexibility by repeatedly transitioning brain states from the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex throughout the session. As a result, it enables the brain to adapt to unexpected circumstances and adjust without emotional turmoil.
Neurofeedback therapy is a treatment that helps strengthen and restore the prefrontal cortex to its dominant state, allowing it to perform what it was planning to do efficiently. It can assist people in regulating their emotions effectively, allowing them to manage feelings of anxiety, depression, and anger.
One study focused on using neurofeedback therapy to treat teen depression by increasing positive self-processing. Teens with depression often have negative self-representations and emotional dysregulation, making them more vulnerable to suicide attempts.
The study found that using neurofeedback therapy to encourage positive self-processing can lead to changes in the limbic functional circuitry and symptom reduction in depressed youth. The results suggest that targeting the right amygdala during future neurofeedback interventions may benefit depressed adolescents (Quevedo et al., 2020).
Calm the Limbic System
Determining the areas of the brain that are not optimally functioning can provide insight into a child's behavior. Each region has a distinct purpose, and a QEEG Brain Map can be a useful diagnostic tool.
For example, if the limbic system is overactive, it can result in emotional and behavioral challenges for the child. Knowing this information is essential to support the child's academic success, ability to focus, and emotional regulation and always helps a parent to understand that the child isn't doing this on purpose
Once the limbic system is calm, the body's immune response, endocrine activity, neurotransmitter functions, gut flora, and cognitive processes can return to normal. The child or teen can process language, think, and take action, which leads to new learning.
Our BrainBehavoirReset Program uses science-backed natural solutions to calm the limbic system, reset the brain, and regulate behavior. We teach children and families healthy ways to cope.
Children and parents must understand the brain to shape their child's behavior. Julia learned to take control of her brain and then her behavior. She stopped feeling so “out of control” and “hopeless.” Through many small micro changes and successes, Julia developed healthy coping skills.
Her parents also learned to stay positive and watch for negative speech feeding Julia's limbic over-activation and family stress. For the families we guide, they learn that magically comes in the small actions that create huge change, and that is exactly what happened with Julia.
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