Emotions are Negotiable – How we can control Mood through our Physiology

In the middle of the night, Hans Spaans finds himself being overwhelmed by cramps slowlytightening up the muscles in his arms, back, thighs and calves until his whole body isa knot of pain, and he’s practically paralyzed. So what is the strategy he uses to deal with these Parkinson’s symptoms?He buries his face into his pillow, and begins yelling a string of curse words. Hans had found that putting himself into a rage somehow gave him strength.

The furious shouting works him up enough to get to his feet and he would then continuethe fit by kicking a couple pillows around. And then, as the anger faded away, so did his cramps and he can suddenly move freely. This case, featured in Scott Carney’s book “What doesn’t kill us,” is a rare instancewhere anger can be helpful. Somehow, channeling this strong emotion had substantial physiological effects on Hans. The connection between emotions in the mind and the state of our body is apparent in thefact that mood disorders like anxiety and depression are often associated with otherdisorders like irritable bowel syndrome, heart disease, chronic pain and chronic fatigue.

Controlling our emotions

Last time I discussed the “theory of constructed emotion” which says emotions are not simply triggered by things happening outside your body, your brain also takes into account data from inside your body and compares that against your past experiences to create an emotion. This means that we have two avenues for controlling our emotions. We can’t always control what’s happening outside of our body, but we can change the software in our head. The other strategy, which we’ll be focusing on today, is changing what’s happening inour body. Going back to Hans, his strategy was effective, but the anger was self destructive and wa sbreeding resentment in him. So what did he do instead?His new, more effective strategy involves deep breathing and taking Cold showers andice baths. Something about the cold would shock his body enough to break through his Parkinson’s symptoms without having to work up a fit of rage.

Noradrenaline Neurons

Some research has found that there is a loss of noradrenaline neurons in the brain in Parkinson’spatients. And, Interestingly, Noradrenaline, also called norepinephrine, is one of the neurotransmittersreleased when you are exposed to the cold. People submerged in 14 degrees celsius water up to their shoulders experienced a 530% increasein norepinephrine, a reduction in cortisol, and a 250% increase in dopamine. Norepinephrine has substantial effects on focus, attention, vigilance and it improvesmood. And disturbances in norepinephrine transmission is thought to also be a key component in depression. You may have heard of serotonin reuptake inhibitors being used as antidepressants, but there arealso antidepressants that work by inhibiting the reuptake of norepinephrine. Cold showers seem to be a big topic of interest nowadays, and there’s a couple differentreasons why – they reduce stress, improve immunity and enhance muscle recovery. But I think the bigger reason is they just make you feel really good.

At this point let me just say that this is what I mean when I say emotions are negotiable. Let’s say you’re having an emotional response to something like… getting fired. You’re filled with anger, resentment and worry, but if you step into a cold enoughshower, the change in your physiology – the boost in norepinephrine and dopamine may haveaffected your mood enough that you’re no longer a walking ball of worry, and you’verealized at the very least, a solution to your problem exists. If cold exposure seems too drastic for you, heat exposure can also improve mood. In this talk, Dr.  Rhonda Patrick is explaining the benefits of using the sauna. The heat exposure changes how your brain responds to feel good endorphins. When you’re exposed to high enough heat, something called dynorphin is released.

Dynorphin is like the opposite of endorphins because it makes you feel uncomfortable. That’s not the result we’re going for, but when dynorphin is released, more of thereceptors that endorphins bind to are created and it sensitizes them to endorphin. This means the next time you make endorphin whether it’s from exercise or laughter orgiving someone a hug, the positive endorphin effect will be stronger. Dr.  Patrick explained how she got interested in this topic when she was a graduate student working towards her PhD – she had to deal with the overwhelming stress and anxiety that came from multiple exams and multiple time consuming experiments. “I was experiencing a sense of, at times, crippling anxiety. ”She found that after using the sauna quite frequently – about 5 times a week, her moodwas noticeably enhanced, and she had less anxiety and was generally able to handle stress much better.


Cold and heat exposure are things you can do quickly to affect your mood, but something that takes a bit longer with a potentially bigger payoff is to reduce inflammation. When researchers want to study a disease, one challenge they have is finding out howto recreate the disease in animal models. There are plenty of studies that look at ways to treat depression by studying rodents with something called “lipopolysaccharide induced depression. ”Lipopolysaccharide is something that induces a violent inflammatory response in humans,and is used experimentally to rapidly create inflammation in animal models to study all kinds of inflammatory diseases. These diseases could be anything from diabetes, inflammatory bowel disorders, rheumatoid arthritis ,to parkinson’s disease, alzheimer’s disease, anxiety and depression.

A decent rule of thumb is if something causes inflammation, especially chronic inflammation,it will probably make you feel crappy. Studies have found that people with depression have higher biomarkers for inflammation byup to 50%, and the risk of major depression increased as c-reactive protein increased. C-reactive protein is a biomarker for inflammation. In one study, people were injected with one of three substances: saline, lipopolysaccharide,or interferon – another inflammation inducing substance. The people with the saline showed no change, but the people injected with the inflammatorysubstances, interferon and lipopolysaccharide, experienced an acute increase in depressivesymptoms like anxiety, feelings of social disconnection and anhedonia – the inabilityto feel pleasure.

So if chronic inflammation is at the very least a component of depression, it’s safeto say that keeping inflammation low is a good strategy for maintaining positive moodand keeping emotional reactivity in check. The ways to keep inflammation low are probably unsurprising: get enough sleep, get enough exercise, keep a healthy weight, don’t spike your blood sugar, and cut out refined carbohydrates,sugar, processed vegetable oils, trans fats and artificial sweeteners. A new study released just this month in the Journal of Inflammatory bowel diseases foundthat the artificial sweetener Splenda increases inflammation in mice afflicted with Crohn’sdisease-like symptoms.

I’ll wrap this up with a quote from Dr.  Lisa Barrett’s book “How emotions aremade” : “When you experience affect without knowing the cause, you are more likely totreat affect as information about the world, rather than your experience of the world. ”Basically, what this means is that we are prone to accept our emotions as accurate evaluationsof what’s happening in the world, unless we know the causes of these emotions. For example, people report more happiness and life satisfaction on sunny days, unlessthey are explicitly asked about the weather. So, when you apply for a job, it’s better to interview on a sunny day because the interviewer isn’t going to be thinking about the fact that they’re more positive because sun exposureenhances serotonin production in the brain.

They’re just going to think “I felt pretty good when talking to that person, I guessit’s because that person is a good candidate. ”In the same way, it’s easy for us to think that the reason we feel bored and stressedat work is because our job sucks. But maybe if you got better sleep and stopped eating power bars for breakfast, you wouldn’tfeel so irritated during the weekly meeting. And sometimes the difference between feeling anxious and overwhelmed and feeling challengedand motivated is more exercise, less alcohol and maybe hitting the sauna. We can’t snap our fingers and change our emotions whenever we want, but when we become aware of the various causes of our emotional state, we can calmly seperate ourselves fromthe emotion and start making changes that will allow for better emotional responses.