The brain and mental health: a basic breakdown (literally and figuratively)

By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC

This (first) post from That Darn Amygdala was published on March 27, 2021. To help provide you with the most up-to-date information, this post has been updated. Enjoy!

The statistic still shocks me: “1 out of 4 adults struggle with at least one mental health disorder at any given time.”  At least this is what John Hopkins Hospital said in 2019 before the world was beset with a massive pandemic, financial crisis, and polarized political climate. Honestly, I think these numbers do not truly reflect what is really happening as so many minimize what their mental health is doing. 

There are many factors to our mental health, including:

  • genetic
  • environmental
  • physical health
  • substance use
  • trauma history
  • how we were raised

The list can go on. Today, I want us to focus a bit on the biology side of it. 

Let’s talk about our brain. As many people know, our brain is broken up into many different sections.  As far as mental health goes, I want us to focus on three specific sections: the limbic system, the prefrontal cortex, and neurotransmitters.

The Limbic System

The limbic system, better known as the primitive brain, has been part of us since we were cavemen. This is the part of our brain that protects us. From storing memories, to fleeing bad situations, even to standing up to that aunt who always pinches our cheeks (although we are in our 30s), the limbic system makes sure we survive.  The limbic system is made up of four main parts: that darn amygdala, the thalamus, hypothalamus, and the hippocampus. Let’s explore each one a bit further. 

“1 out of 4 adults struggle with at least one mental health disorder at any given time.” 

John hopkins Hospital

The amygdala. That darn, impulsive, crazy amygdala. This crazy little gland is in the center of our brain and is about the size of a walnut. I like to call our amygdala our “go system.”  Our amygdala responds very impulsively, often without considering consequences.

This is great if you’re being chased by saber tooth cats, running to your car in the rain, or grabbing the candy bar when you are checking out in the gas station. It is the job of the amygdala to make sure our basic needs are being met while staying safe. 

Sometimes, this means that darn amygdala acts super-fast without looking at all the facts of the situation. For example, have you ever gotten nervous before phone call? That is our darn amygdala getting ready to protect us since it doesn’t know what will happen on the call, even if we are just calling to order pizza. Who would’ve thought that this little gland responsible for so much? 

Is your Darn Amygdala working on overtime? Ready to slow it down?

The thalamus is the highway of the limbic system.  It is responsible for taking the information the amygdala collects and dispersing it throughout the brain.  It is kind of like a gatekeeper, allowing certain information in to streamline the reaction that is needed for the situation it is facing. Sometimes it takes in all the information and sometimes it only allows certain information (in the case of mental health, just the negative information that makes us feel worse) to be processed and distributed throughout the brain. This is where our emotions and physical sensations relate to the memories our brain is keeping.  

This hypothalamus serves an important part of the limbic system. This part of our brain is responsible for creating short term memories and maintaining long-term memories. Essentially, the hypothalamus is the key to regulating our reactions, both in emotional and physical in nature.

We cannot forget about our hippocampus.  It works with our amygdala to help create short-term memories and store long-term memories.  What is interesting about the hippocampus, is that it helps release chemical messengers, (known as neurotransmitters) once the amygdala identifies what kind of reaction is needed. 

Science has shown that people who undergo chronic stress and depression have a smaller hippocampus. This is evidence that our brain can be physically changed by our mental health.  Although that is sad news, what is amazing is that our hippocampus can heal if we can maintain healthy stress levels.  There is hope! 

Looking for books that better explain your brain? Check out the Book Club!

The Prefrontal Cortex

Now that we’ve talked about the basics of the limbic system, let’s talk a bit about our prefrontal cortex. Our prefrontal cortex is part of our brain located directly behind our forehead. This is something that has developed over thousands of years, and I like to call it our “stop system.” The prefrontal cortex likes to plan things and take all facts into consideration. It enjoys slowing down and solving problems versus reacting to them like the amygdala.

The prefrontal cortex developed much later in our history than the limbic system as an additional way to keep us safe. For example, it is the part of our brain that says, “I’m really hungry, but I don’t need the consequences of eating poisonous berries, or that expired sushi on the fridge shelf.”  It takes a few minutes for the prefrontal cortex to kick in, but it is typically able to communicate with the amygdala to calm it down. All of this communication happens via neurotransmitters. 

two man holding white paper

An important part of our prefrontal cortex is the insula. Located in the middle of the prefrontal cortex, the insula is responsible for processing all of our sensory information (you know, like what we are seeing, tasting, and smelling). Although located in the prefrontal cortex, the insula has direct links to:

  • That darn amygdala
  • The thalamus
  • The hypothalamus
  • The hippocampus

This means it can get important environmental information (for example, the smell of smoke and sight of flames) to the limbic system to help keep us alive!

What are Neurotransmitters?

Neurotransmitters are chemicals in our brain that signal us to behave in a certain way. The neurotransmitters associated with mental health include (but not limited to) dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, GABA, glutamate, and endorphins. It is important to know that this is how our brain communicates when we are experiencing some sort of emotion, positive or negative, by how much (or how little) of a certain neurotransmitter is present in our brain. 

There is a lot more to mental health than “just emotions.” Thank you for taking time to learn about the major players involved in your mental health. It is my hope this post helps you be less afraid of mental health, and more empowered to conquer it!   

To recap today’s blog post: 

– the brain is most definitely involved in mental health 

– there are parts of our brain that control how we react to situations 

– we can change how our brain works by using coping skills to make those changes 

– Neurotransmitters are how our brain talks its different parts 

Bonus Material

With your purchase of the Worksheet bundle , you get fun (and helpful) handouts. These handouts are designed for your personal use and to help you remember the facts of each post.

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26 responses to “The brain and mental health: a basic breakdown (literally and figuratively)”

  1. […] off, let’s talk about the brain. If you recall from my first post, The Brain and Mental Health: The Breakdown (Literally and Figuratively), you may remember the breakdown of the limbic system and the role it has in mental health. Unlike […]

  2. […] to naturally calm down our body. As our body calms down, our stress goes down. If you remember from The Brain and Mental Health: A Basic Breakdown (Literally and Figuratively, lowering our stress allows our hippocampus to heal and return to a normal […]

  3. […] improve our mental health. I don’t think I have been this excited for a post since I posted The Brain and Mental Health: The Breakdown (Literally and Figuratively) (okay, and every other post I put out […]

  4. […] way to self soothe is by using your senses. As we’ve talked about in the Brain and Mental Health: A Basic Breakdown (Literally and Figuratively), our senses are the main way our darn amygdala gets information. So let’s give it some […]

  5. […] improve our mental health. I don’t think I have been this excited for a post since I posted The Brain and Mental Health: The Breakdown (Literally and Figuratively) (okay, and every other post I put out […]

  6. […] done a lot of talking about the role of that darn amygdala and the prefrontal cortex in my post Mental Health and the Brain: A Breakdown (Literally and Figuratively). In this post, I am going to refer to that darn amygdala as the emotional brain (because it is) and […]

  7. […] you recall from my very first post, Mental Health and the Brain: A Basic Breakdown (Literally and Figuratively) the limbic system is large and in charge of our emotional parts of our brains. When it comes to […]

  8. […] The Brain and Mental Health: A Basic Breakdown (Literally and Figuratively) […]

  9. […] responsible for our ability to focus would be the prefrontal cortex. If you recall from my post Mental Health and the Brain: The Basic Breakdown (Literally and Figuratively, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for our executive functioning. What is that? That is the […]

  10. […] want to draw attention to the whole “checking or proving” part. This is exactly what our prefrontal cortex is looking for! The definition of validation is all about having facts our prefrontal cortex can […]

  11. […] what is going on. Do you know what that darn amygdala does? If you recall my very first post, Mental Health and The Brain: a Basic Breakdown (literally and figuratively) that darn amygdala decides to blow the alarm whistle. As it sends off it’s S.O.S., the […]

  12. […] your prefrontal cortex with evidence that you are doing better than your darn amygdala is telling […]

  13. […] seem like it should feel nice.” It then whispers it’s concerns to that darn amygdala. With that information, that darn amygdala starts to panic, lights up brighter than Clark […]

  14. […] by all the brain talk? Go back and read this post to gain a better […]

  15. […] to create the stress response. By creating and maintaining a routine, our brain (especially your prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and your darn amygdala) knows what is expected of […]

  16. […] has an impact on several different parts of our brain. First, our insula. This small part of our limbic system is located in our prefrontal cortex and provides our brain with all of the sensory information […]

  17. […] cognitive distortions helps depression and the brain in several ways. First, it allows the prefrontal cortex to get in on the conversation that darn amygdala is trying to control. Second, it allows for the […]

  18. […] a unique pathway in our brain. In case you didn’t know it, we experience stress because our darn amygdala, hypothalamus, and the pineal gland choose to gang up on us and allow the stress hormone, cortisol, to run chaotically through our […]

  19. […] is a response provided from your favorite brain system: the limbic system. As you recall, our limbic system houses the part of the brain we love: the prefrontal cortex. I […]

  20. […] and a parent telling them to calm down. That’s kind of what is happening in our brain: that darn amygdala is throwing a hissy fit and the prefrontal cortex is acting all parental and telling it to calm […]

  21. As a person whose darn amygdala causes her problems, I appreciate this post. I’d love to learn a little more about the hippocampus. Is it that chronic stress shrinks the hippocampus or that folks with chronic stress have a smaller hippocampus in the first place? And is that important because it’s releasing those neurotransmitters, or for some other reason?

    1. This is a great question! The stress hormone, cortisol, is responsible for decreasing the size of the hippocampus. It does this by letting the brain, making it harder to take in other neurotransmitters

  22. I loved this post! I needed this refresher! It’s so helpful to have a deep understanding of the brain and our biology because it truly plays such a role in our mental health. I believe knowledge is power, so the more we are familiar with the inner workings of our brains, the better equipped we are to navigate and maintain our mental health!

  23. […] on emotions supported by the facts of the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus starts to change. The hippocampus begins the process of syncing up with the gratitude the prefrontal cortex has identified. This […]

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