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Can you train your brain to manage strong emotions?

Let’s face it, we’ve all had those days where we wanted to let out a primal scream. But somehow, even in the most frustrating moments, we manage to hold it together (most of the time!). What’s stopping us? The answer lies in our remarkable brains and their sophisticated emotion regulation systems.

The way we navigate life’s ups and downs depends on these systems. They help us reframe a situation – instead of wallowing, we can gain a fresh perspective. It makes a profound difference in how we feel, behave, and make decisions.

For those struggling with their mental health, the inability to flexibly control emotions can fuel persistent negative thoughts, making it hard to change your outlook.

Mapping how brains manage emotions

Dartmouth College researchers have shed new light on how our brains manage emotions. This fascinating study pinpoints areas of the brain responsible for emotion regulation, separate from the areas generating the emotion itself. This is a significant step towards understanding and improving mental health.

“As a former biomedical engineer, it was exciting to identify some brain regions that are purely unique to regulating emotions,” said study lead author Ke Bo. “Our results provide new insight into how emotion regulation works by identifying targets which could have clinical applications.”

Detailed brain scans

The scientists peered into the brains of volunteers using fMRI scanners. The participants were shown unpleasant images (like bloody scenes and creepy animals) while their brain activity was recorded.

Then, they were asked to change their feelings about the images by reframing them. This was designed to activate their brain’s emotion regulation centers.

The emotion regulation “HQ” in the brain

The study identified that areas within the anterior prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in complex reasoning and planning, are crucial for regulating our emotions. The more activity in this region, the better equipped people were to avoid getting trapped in cycles of negative thinking.

However, in a fascinating twist, the amygdala – a brain structure commonly associated with fear and threat responses – showed consistent levels of activity regardless of whether the participants were actively regulating their emotions or not.

“It’s really the cortex that is responsible for generating people’s emotional responses, by changing the way we see and attach meaning to events in our environments,” said Ke Bo.

Brain’s neurochemistry of emotion

Our brains utilize a complex network of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Examples include dopamine, known for its role in reward and motivation, and serotonin, linked to mood regulation.

These neurotransmitters are essential for the communication between brain cells. Both therapeutic medications and illicit substances target these neurotransmitter systems to alter brain function.

The Dartmouth study made a significant finding: brain regions dedicated to emotion regulation appear to have a high concentration of receptors for specific neurotransmitters. Receptors act as docking stations for neurotransmitters, enabling them to exert their effects on cells.

Study senior author Tor Wager explained: “Our results showed that receptors for cannabinoids (the neurotransmitters our bodies produce that act similarly to the active components of marijuana), opioids, and serotonin, including a specific type of serotonin receptor called 5H2A, were especially concentrated in the brain areas responsible for regulating emotions.”

What this means for mental health

To develop more effective treatments for mental health conditions, it’s essential to understand how neurotransmitters interact with the brain systems responsible for emotion regulation.

Antidepressants, for example, often focus on increasing the availability of serotonin in the brain. This study suggests that, besides improving general mood, such medications may also enhance our capacity to control our emotions.

The study also sheds light on the potential link between psychedelic medicines and centers of emotion regulation in the brain. Psychedelics, as a newly emerging area of treatment, primarily target serotonin receptors.

The research calls for further investigation into how the combination of therapeutic support, psychological intervention, and medication could lead to optimal outcomes in mental health treatment.

Tools for stronger emotion regulation

While the science behind emotion regulation is fascinating, let’s explore some proven techniques you can start using in your daily life to take control of your emotions:


Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment without judgment. It’s like stepping back and becoming an observer of your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. This awareness allows you to avoid getting swept up by emotions.

Simple practices like mindful breathing, guided meditations, or focusing on daily activities with full attention are great ways to start. Many apps and websites offer helpful resources.

Cognitive reframing

Cognitive reframing means changing how you think about a situation to alter your emotional response. Start by noticing negative thoughts that fuel unpleasant feelings.

Steps for cognitive reframing:

  1. Catch those negative thoughts: Start paying attention to your inner monologue, especially in challenging situations. Notice those automatic, negative thoughts that pop up and start making you feel worse. These are often exaggerations or unhelpful generalizations.
  2. Challenge and reframe: Examine those thoughts. Are they realistic, or are they based on fear or past experiences? Instead of letting negativity take over, come up with more balanced, helpful alternatives. For example, “I’ll never get all of this done!” is probably not factually true. A reframe like “I’ll break this down and tackle the most important task first” promotes a sense of control and focuses on a solution.
  3. The shift: When we switch from catastrophic thinking to more constructive thoughts, we stay calmer and become better equipped to problem-solve.


Regular physical activity is a natural mood enhancer. When we move our bodies, our brains release endorphins, giving us a sense of well-being and reducing stress.

Exercise can also be a healthy way to release pent-up frustration or anger. Whether it’s a brisk walk, an intense workout, or a calming yoga session, find activities you enjoy and make them a part of your routine.

This research brings a deeper understanding of why some of us navigate difficult situations better, and it hints at ways to improve our emotional control through both therapy and potentially medication. It’s a crucial area of study as we work towards a more holistic approach to mental well-being.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.


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