A brief glance at your to-do list may be enough to send your sense of anxiety soaring, but what you find upsetting is actually a complex interplay between different parts of your brain. While it might seem obvious that being more positive also tends to make you less anxious, researchers hadn’t truly understood how that observation might manifest in the brain. New research published this week has used brain MRIs from people with different personalities to understand exactly which parts of the brain balance anxiety and positivity in a way that may help anxious individuals in the future.
Why worry about anxiety?
While there’s nothing wrong with being a little anxious every now and then, anxiety can become a serious and debilitating mental illness. Anxiety is a normal response to stressful situations like a first date or an upcoming race. That anxiety helps our brain prepare for something important in the future and helps make sure you’re ready for whatever comes your way. But in people with anxiety disorders, that worrying is out of control. Feelings of anxiety become intrusive and affect a person constantly throughout the day, preventing them from doing anything except feel anxious. That prevents people who suffer from anxiety disorders from living out their daily lives. They may not be able to work effectively and may struggle to maintain relationships with other people.
Anxiety is big problem. In the U.S., almost 30 million people are affected by anxiety disorders each year. Over the course of a lifetime, about one in three adults will experience an anxiety disorder. Fortunately, treatment exists for those who have anxiety. Different forms of psychotherapy are often very successful at helping to reduce the symptoms of anxiety disorders and often set people on a path to recovery and better function. In spite of that, researchers still don’t fully understand what’s happening in the brain when someone has an anxiety disorder.
What do we know about the anxious brain?
Past research has shown that a region of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) plays a key role in feelings of anxiety and optimism. This region of the brain sits right at the front of your skull just behind your eyes and is important in decision-making and emotional control. The OFC gets information from other areas in the brain that process emotion, sensory information and expectations. The OFC gathers data from all of these locations and puts it together to help decide what the best thing is to do in a given situation.
At least one study showed that people who are more anxious have smaller OFC areas, indicating either that anxiety was directly causing shrinkage or that people with smaller OFCs were less able to fight off the effects of anxiety. The opposite seems to be true for optimism. At least one study found that people who are most optimistic are also more likely to have larger OFCs and more activity in the OFC when brain scans are done in these people. Since anxiety shrank the OFC and optimism made it grow, the research team wondered whether being optimistic might directly fight the effects of anxiety on the brain.
How did the researchers test the interplay between optimism and anxiety?
The team recruited 61 healthy young adults between 18 and 34 and scanned their brains. From these scans, they reconstructed the OFC in 3D in each one of the participants and compared the sizes and structures. They also had each participant undergo personality testing that looked for personality traits like anxiety, optimism, depression, and positivity or negativity. They then took the data both parts of the study and looked to see whether the size of the OFC had anything to do with how each participant scored on the personality test.
What did the research team find?
The team found that people with thicker OFCs, particularly on the left side of the brain, were more likely to be optimistic and less likely to be anxious. As expected people who were anxious were more likely to have thin OFCs and those who were optimistic had thicker ones. Interestingly, optimism seemed to be strongly centered in the OFC and wasn’t linked to other regions of the brain the team studied, showing that its effects on anxiety might be due solely to changes in the OFC. This deduction was strengthened by the fact that their analysis didn’t find other personality traits aside from anxiety to be acting in the same region of the brain. Further analysis confirmed that the level of optimism was the determining factor in keeping people from being anxious.
What does this mean for me?
This study adds brain-based support that increasing optimism can fight the effects of anxiety on the brain. Importantly, there are already indications in several other studies that training this part of your brain using feedback from brain scans might help to reduce symptoms of anxiety. The researchers hope that their results will help therapists develop new techniques focusing on increasing optimism that can better help individuals with anxiety. If you’re concerned that you or a loved one may be suffering from an anxiety disorder, seek help from a trained mental health professional.