The Science Behind Blue Monday: Understanding and Overcoming the January Slump
Blue Monday is upon us once again. However, for many, the day doesn’t feel any different the 51 other Mondays in the year. Is this because those people are filled with joy and happiness all year round, so the concept of feeling ‘blue’ isn’t on their radar? Of course not. For many, the day is no different to any other because a large percentage of people experience stress, worry and anxiety on a regular basis.

If so many of us frequently experience this, it begs the question, ‘are humans designed to worry?’.

You may be surprised to learn that the short answer to this is yes!

In his book, 'I Know What To Do So Why Don’t I Do It?', Neuroscientist, Dr Nick Hall, discusses Brainwave activity in the pre-frontal lobe (“PFL”). This is the most cognitive, rational and ‘human’ part of the brain, and activity occurs in both the left and right sides. Hall explains that the locality of these brain waves is significant.

In people with higher incidences of depression, anxiety, stress and who are more likely to be deemed as pessimistic, the neuronal activity is found to be more concentrated on the right side of the PFL.

For people who report themselves as happier, more relaxed, calmer and generally optimistic, the neuron activity favours the left side.

You might then think that humans would be pretty much equal in terms of those with dominant right or left sides of the PFL… but they are not!

The average brainwave pattern across the human race is skewed to the right side of the PFL, meaning that humans are, by default, more likely to be pessimistic, risk averse, cautious and with certain anxieties. So, in reference to my earlier question, you could say that humans are ‘designed’ to worry.

Why might this be?
Assuming the accuracy of Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection and Evolution, it is likely that being slightly on the side of caution and risk aversion, by default, has evolved over time. Many of the hopelessly optimistic humans who didn’t see risks and danger, have removed themselves from the gene pool one way or another.

Of course this is just the average brainwave pattern, and there are billions of people with more left-side activity occurring. The further to the left you go, the more optimistic, carefree and positive those brains are. Similarly, the extremes of the right side are likely to be reflective of those who suffer from chronic stress, anxiety and severe depression.

Can I change which side my brainwave activity occurs?

Recent discoveries in neuroscience and neuroplasticity (the changes in brain structure which occur based on our thoughts and behaviour) have shown that we can SHIFT our own PFL brain wave pattern over time.

If we become more stressed and anxious then our brainwaves shift more to the right, and conversely, if we practice mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and other emotional resilience building activities, our brainwaves shift to the left.

Over time, and if practiced consistently, due to neuroplasticity our neurons become “re-wired”, making the changes more permanent. This means we can literally build a different brain, based on what we do and how we live.

You might ask why we would want to shift our brainwaves to the left, given the optimal evolutionary position is clearly to be skewed to the right. The answer is that humans simply no longer face the same risks that we did 10,000 years (or more) ago. So, our natural risk aversion and pessimism may well, in a world of opportunity and relative prosperity, be holding us back more than it is keeping us safe.

The fundamental human brain structure has not changed in recent times and will not significantly change in future, as natural selection all but ceased the moment medical science, law and order and the abundance of food reduced the death rate and allowed population growth to reach the level it is now at.

Ultimately, we are stuck with the brains we have in an ever more complex world, meaning that neuroplastic change is pretty much all we have to hone and enhance our brains, should we decide to harness that to our advantage.

We probably all recognise that activities such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness and self-care are good for us. Based on Dr Nick Hall’s research, consistently practicing them could lead to a permanently more resilient, optimistic and happier brain, that is more suited to today’s world. So, if you want to render Blue Monday a thing of the past, incorporating more of these activities into your daily routine could help!

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