Deep in the middle of the frontal lobes is a fascinating area of the brain called the anterior cingulate gyrus. I know it is a mouthful, so let’s just call it the ACG. The ACG and surrounding areas of the frontal lobes are involved in shifting our attention from thing to thing, idea to idea, and issue to issue. When this part of the brain works too hard, often due to low serotonin levels in the brain, we have a tendency to get locked into negative thoughts or behaviors; we have trouble seeing the options in situations. Optimizing this part of the mind involves training the brain to become more flexible and see options and new ideas.
Through the years, other researchers have also written extensively about the ACG. Multiple lines of evidence have linked it to shifting attention, feelings of safety and security, and error detection or knowing when something is wrong or out of place. In my experience, the term that best relates to the ACG is cognitive flexibility.
Cognitive flexibility defines a person’s ability to go with the flow, adapt to change, and deal successfully with new problems. Many situations in life demand cognitive flexibility. For example, when you start a new job and you need to learn a new system of doing things. Students need cognitive flexibility in order to be successful in school. Flexibility is also important in friendship, what works in a friendship with one person may not be at all effective with someone else.
Effectively managing change and transition is an essential ingredient in personal, interpersonal, and professional growth. The ACG can be of great help or hindrance to this process. When it is working properly, we are more able to roll with the circumstances of the day. When it is impaired or overactive, cognitive flexibility is diminished.
Problems when the ACG works too hard:
- Holding on to hurts from the past
- Getting stuck on thoughts (obsessions)
- Getting stuck on behaviors (compulsions)
- Oppositional behavior
- Addictive behaviors
- Chronic pain
- Cognitive inflexibility
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Road rage
Interventions – 6 Things to Do to Stop Worrying Today:
There are two ways that food can increase serotonin levels. Foods high in simple carbohydrates, such as pastas, potatoes, breads, pastries, pretzels and popcorn, increase insulin levels and allow more tryptophan (the natural amino acid building block for serotonin) to enter the brain, where it is converted to serotonin. The calming effect of serotonin can often be felt in thirty minutes or less by eating these foods. This may be one of the reasons simple carbohydrates are so addictive. They can be used to make you feel happy, but also cause high blood sugar levels that over time are associated with brain atrophy and dementia. I particularly like complex carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes and garbanzo beans, as a healthier way to boost serotonin.
Exercise can also be helpful in calming worries and increasing cognitive flexibility. Exercise works by increasing brain levels of L-tryptophan. As mentioned above, L-tryptophan is a relatively small amino acid and has trouble competing against the larger amino acids are utilized to replenish muscle strength, which causes a decrease in the availability of these larger amino acids in the bloodstream/As such, L-tryptophan can compete more effectively to enter the brain and raise brain serotonin levels. In addition, exercise increases your energy levels and may distract you from the bad thoughts that tend to loop around in your mind. Exercise is recommended for oppositional children as a way to improve their L-tryptophan levels and increase cooperation.
Whenever you notice thoughts looping or getting stuck in your head, imagine seeing a traffic stop sign in your head and silently saying to yourself, “STOP. THIS IS MY ACG GETTING STUCK!” For some people, the more they actively stop these thoughts, the more control they develop over them.
Notice When You’re Stuck, Distract Yourself and Come Back Later
A primary way to overcome a busy ACG is to notice when you’re stuck on a thought and do something to distract yourself. Becoming aware of circular or looping thoughts is essential to gaining control over them. Get up and do something else. Distraction is often a very helpful technique.
Think Through Answers Before Automatically Saying No
As mentioned, many ACG people have an automatic tendency to say no. Fight the tendency. Before answering questions or responding to requests in a negative way, take a breath and think first whether or not it is best to say no. Often it is helpful to take a deep breath, hold it for three seconds, and then take five seconds to exhale, just to get extra time before responding.
Write Out Options and Solutions When You Feel Stuck
When you are stuck on a thought, it is often helpful to write it down. Writing it down helps to get it out of your head. Seeing a thought on paper makes it easier to deal with it in a rational way. When repetitive thoughts interfere with sleep, keep a pen and paper near your bed to write them out. After you write out a thought that has “gotten stuck,” generate a list of things you can do about it and things you can’t do about it.