When Our Joy Center is Underdeveloped
In the last blog of this series, (Joy: A Necessity for Life), we examined some ways in which joy is not only powerful, but also necessary for secure attachment, healthy emotional development, and robust identity formation. We also saw how joyous moments help to strengthen the brain’s neuropathways as it self-organizes. “If a mother doesn’t mirror her infant in a way to generate positive arousal, the positive arousal circuits are at risk of atrophy, making it harder in later life for that person to feel joy and excitement” (Schore, 2019). To fully understand how early experiences shape our brain development and impact our health throughout our lives, we will look at the various whole-body consequences of low or absent joy.
One of the developments of too little joy early in life is that fear bonds form in place of secure attachment. As a result, fear and anxiety shape the way our brain organizes itself and functions (Wilder et al, 2014). When fear and anxiety dominate the brain, it is unable to find stable joy to regulate emotions, pain, and pleasure appropriately (Wilder et al, 2014). In addition, fear bonds affect a person’s ability to develop a healthy self-concept. This is because identity forms in the first five years of life through what our main caregivers reflect to us about ourselves. If they reflect low joy and fear, then a person’s identity will waiver based on their performance and the behaviors of others.
As insecure attachment stunts the joy center’s growth and development, it results in above-average activation of the brain’s amygdala and hippocampus (Wilder et al, 2014). These areas of the brain activate when a person experiences something fearful or dangerous, causing the fight, flight, or freeze response. The amygdala is connected to the vagus nerve, which makes up our limbic system. The vagus nerve runs along the brainstem to important organs of the body. When we have trauma, insecure attachment, and an underdeveloped joy center, our amygdala reacts frequently, activating the limbic system and affecting our bodies. When fear dominates our everyday interactions instead of joy, the limbic system activates frequently, inhibiting various functions in the brain and body such as social processes, regulating emotions, and functions of the heart, digestion, and other vital organs (Porges, 2021). As mentioned earlier, fear bonds cause whole-body consequences.
One of the most common struggles of those with low joy is the presence of addiction. Wilder et al (2014) explain that “in the absence of joy to regulate pain, pleasure, and emotions internally, the brain craves an external source of artificial joy to do what it is unable to do for itself.” These artificial sources of joy include comfort foods, sex, work, performance, approval, codependent relationships, excitement, gambling, entertainment, and substances (Wilder et al, 2014). Instead of experiencing joy through connection with others, a person will seek joy substitutes (or pseudo-joys) that stimulate the pleasure center of the brain to release dopamine (Wilder et al, 2014). These joy substitutes generate temporary feelings of pleasure that help us regulate internal distress, reduce pain, increase pleasure and escape from negative emotions (Wilder et al, 2014), but the feeling is short-lived. They instead cause a person to lose the ability to feel pleasure and calm without the use of those pseudo-joys.
In summary, living with low joy is detrimental to attaching to others, forming a healthy identity, regulating emotions, and calming the body. As a result of feeling fearful to attach and connect, people go to experiences, food, and substances that cause the brain to release rewards. When we use pseudo-joys to regulate and recover from painful emotions, our brain’s self-organizing systems lose the ability to grow and strengthen healthy brain pathways. This causes a person to stay stuck in dysfunctional patterns that halt growth, healing, and recovery. Friesen et al (2013) explain that “people cannot recover from traumas that are bigger than the size of their joyful identity,” therefore, growing our brain’s joy center through joyful connection is essential in the recovery from addiction and trauma.
The next blog will complete this series on joy by highlighting the benefits of living with high joy and how to begin focusing on growing your brain’s joy center.
Friesen, J.G. et al. (2013). Living From the Heart Jesus Gave You, 15th Anniversary Study Edition. East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House Inc.
Porges, S. W. (2021). Polyvagal Safety: Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.
Schore, A. N. (2019). Right Brain Psychotherapy. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company
Wilder, E. J., et al. (2014). Joy Starts Here: The Transformation Zone. East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House Inc.