The Limbic System’s Effect on Mental Health and Emotions?

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS
August 20, 2019

Aristotle coined the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  While this may be true, some things could not function without the careful interplay of its parts. For example, an automobile cannot drive itself without the integration and cooperation of several important parts. Obviously there is a lot of complex, internal mechanisms that make a car function, but from a basic standpoint, a car could not move or stop without the gas or break pedals. A car could not move left or right without the steering wheel. A car could not back up without shifting gears into reverse. The car can only drive when all of these pieces work together.


The limbic system is somewhat similar to a car in that the limbic system is a group of brain structures that simultaneously work together to help the brain function. The limbic system includes structures such as the hippocampus, amygdala, and hypothalamus. Other structures include the basil ganglia, parts of the prefrontal cortex, the cingulated gyrus, ventral tegmental area, and other neurons. These structures all work together to play a part in mental health and emotions.

The limbic system controls conscious and unconscious functioning, performs regulating functions, and links the mind and body together. It plays a role in a person’s fight or flight response, as the physical fight response is connected to the emotional fear response. The limbic system impacts attention and learning by assisting the brain with memory formation.

The hypothalamus controls hormones that help a person to maintain homeostasis, or consistency. The hypothalamus also controls hormones that have a significant impact on emotions. Some of these emotions include pain, feelings of thirst and hunger, sexual feelings, and rage and aggression. 

The hippocampus controls memory, learning, and spatial orientation, while the amygdala helps the brain to process emotions and attach emotional information to memories. Emotional responses, such as love, aggression, panic, and worry are regulated by the amygdala and hippocampus. The amygdala and hippocampus tag memories with emotional meaning, especially memories connected to fear. The amygdala and hippocampus help the brain to create new memories in addition to storing memories, retrieving them, and processing content.

Some research proposes that attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be caused by an enlarged hippocampus, which may be the brain’s attempt to compensate for the hippocampus’s impairment with attention. Other research on Alzheimer’s disease and dementia has suggested that these diseases target and attack the hippocampus, drastically interfering with memory mechanisms. 

Reward, motivation, and addiction are said to begin in the ventral tegmental area of the limbic system, which are a group of neurons that release dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that causes a person to feel pleasure. Dopamine plays an important role in motivation and trying new things. Addiction can alter the way that the limbic system functions, as addiction can decrease the brain’s dopamine supply. This depletion is why individuals need to use increasing amounts of drugs in order to feel pleasure again.

Therapy is an intervention to help with emotional regulation and behavior control. Therapy may create permanent changes in the limbic system by conditioning the brain to process information in new and different ways. Therapy can also help the brain unlink old emotions and reassign them to new emotions. This reassignment of emotions can bring about changes to a person’s feelings and behavior.

Aristotle believed that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. However, a whole would not exist without the cooperation of its parts. A car would be rendered useless if it did not have a steering wheel, brakes, or gas pedal. Similarly, the limbic system, which controls emotions and a different type of “drive”, would be unable to function without the careful interplay of all of its parts.

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.

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