Amygdala and Depression: Can You Train it to Feel Better?

The treatment of depression has created a worldwide industry worth billions of dollars. There are dozens of pharmaceutical antidepressants, ranging from MAOI inhibitors to SSRIs, and therapists often spend years helping clients overcome their symptoms. Recently, there’s been some evidence to suggest that exploring the link between the amygdala and depression. Can training your amygdala really resolve depression?

What Is the Amygdala?

The amygdala is a very, very small area in the brain that has been shown to produce feelings of emotion. It’s responsible for feelings of happiness, sadness, fear, and more. Scientists have known for a while now that the amygdala is the center of many feelings resulting from depression and anxiety disorders. A recent study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that it might be possible to reduce the symptoms of depression by training this particular region of the brain to react more favorably to positive memories.

As an example, if you’ve ever had an anxiety or panic attack, this is a classic example of your amygdala in action. Environmental stressors convince this region of your brain that you’re in danger, whether or not this is true. As a result, the amygdala triggers your body’s “fight-or-flight” response by flooding your bloodstream with adrenaline. Some researchers believe that because the amygdala is also partially responsible for the formation of long-term memory, it may actually trigger negative responses when you recall certain memories from the past. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a perfect example.

Can You Train Your Amygdala?

With the link between the amygdala and depression clearer, the authors of the aforementioned study decided to put amygdala training to the test. They observed 33 adults who had a major depressive disorder (clinical depression) who were not being treated with pharmaceuticals. Over the course of several weeks, the participants underwent one of two different types of “brain training” therapies. Eighteen participants underwent amygdala training; the others were trained in another area of the brain, called the parietal cortex, which isn’t related to emotions in any way.

Those who participated in amygdala training showed significant decreases in depressive symptoms after just one week. At the end of several weeks, those who continued to receive amygdala training, the reduction in symptoms was even greater, and the researchers could measure increased amygdala activity when the patients were asked to retrieve positive memories. In fact, out of those 18 patients, 12 of them experienced decreases of 50% or more. This is a truly groundbreaking discovery, and one that may help people around the world relieve their symptoms without chemical intervention.

How Amygdala Training Works

Amygdala training involves changing the link between the amygdala and depression in such a way that the retrieval of memories produces feelings of happiness rather than feelings of sadness. Individuals who undergo this therapy are trained for several hours over the course of many sessions using imaging equipment. Simply put, these individuals are trained to respond positively to images shown to them by their therapists, and this helps to stimulate the amygdala to generate favorable responses. Over time, the amygdala isn’t as likely to respond with the “fight-or-flight” reaction, which is responsible for feelings of anxiety and, in many cases, depression.

For those dealing with a clinical depression disorder, life is a series of ups and downs. While traditional therapies with psychologists or psychiatrists and one or more pharmaceutical drugs can certainly help, there is more and more evidence to suggest that treating the link between the amygdala and depression is just as effective – and it doesn’t require the introduction of chemical compounds.

Read our article on how to live in the moment next.