Why Do “Gut Instincts” Cause Depression and Anxiety?

About the Author Dr. Stephen Giron is a Master-Level Higher Brain Living Facilitator at Higher Brain Living, helping people achieve fulfillment and self actualization through stimulation of the brain.

The amygdala is part of the lower-brain system and is responsible for regulating survival instincts and the emotions associated with survival. Emotions like stress, fear, anger, passion, attraction, and instantaneous recognition are more commonly referred to as “gut instincts.”

It’s much more efficient for the brain to perform habits than it is to devote energy to new and different things.   When the brain is continuously reacting to new emotions, the lower-brain system falls into a debilitating trap of wanting to prevent change while responding to gut instincts.  When instinctual (emotional) relief is hard to come by, anxiety, depression, and PTSD may increase.

The prefrontal cortex, the seat of the higher brain, is responsible for executive function, decision-making, flashes of insight and problem-solving techniques.

At first glance, it can be easy to assume that the lower and higher brains are enemies. The virtuous impulses of the higher brain are constantly thwarted by the panicky impulses of the lower brain that can short-circuit progress.

Can I Rewire My Brain?

Research conducted by Dr. Norman Doidge suggests that we can use the brain’s own power to change itself to encourage better cooperation between the lower and higher brain.

The brain’s astonishing capability to adjust and change, even in the face of debilitating injury, is often referred to as plasticity or neuroplasticity.

Dr. Doidge wrote a book called The Brain That Changes Itself, in which he discusses and documents his years of research on neuroplasticity. In his book, he addresses a phenomenon called sublimation. This is when the high and low brain actually works together and influence each other to create something even better.

Are Adrenaline Rushes Good for the Brain?

Sublimation is often associated with the notion of “civilizing” our animal instincts. An example can be seen in how we approach competitive sports in our culture. Tens of thousands of years ago, the competition was literally a matter of life and death: our ancestors were looking for food, trying to find the best places to live and hunt to survive.

Today, we don’t have that kind of survivalist urgency, but our brains still get great pleasure out of the act of competing and winning.  Our brains crave effort and striving, and they send out adrenaline reward chemicals like crazy when we compete for things — even when we’re just watching other people competing.

The plastic brain allows for sublimation. Areas of life that historically have functioned to carry out hunter-gatherer tasks (like stalking and killing prey) can be sublimated into things like competitive games. Our brains can link two seemingly unconnected things in different ways to create entirely new things. In this way, neurons from instinctual parts of our lower brain can play quite nicely with cognitive-cerebral parts (our higher brain) to influence each other, form new functions, and still release all the reward chemicals of our ancestral habits.

As Dr. Doidge notes:

When an instinct, such as stalking prey, is linked up to a civilized activity, such as cornering an opponent’s king on a chessboard, and the neuronal networks for the instinct and intellectual activity are also linked, the two activities appear to temper each other — playing chess is no longer about bloodthirsty stalking, though it still has some of the exciting emotions of the hunt. The dichotomy between “low” and “high” begins to disappear…The low and the high transform each other to create a new whole (p. 297).

Will Meditation Help Manage Depression Symptoms?

We can use sublimation to our advantage to overcome our feelings of depression, too, by channeling our lower primitive instincts – like anger & worry – into productive activities like meditation. Instead of attacking a threat, we can attack the meditation cushion or any other therapeutic agency that will give us depression relief.

As you’re out and about this week, see if you can notice instances of sublimation — or perhaps instances where sublimation would be helpful in cases where lower brain reactions are taking over. Yes, it’s great to know where and when to engage higher brain functioning when old habits aren’t serving you. But how exciting to know that these two parts of the brain work together to lessen depressive symptoms.


If you’re looking for ways to boost your higher brain function so you can live a more harmonious life, check out our contributing blogger’s website Source Code Meditation.