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Anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses, affecting 18% of adults and 25% of children in the U.S. Anxiety disorders are often accompanied by depression, eating disorders, substance abuse problems, and health problems. Exciting new research looking at specific regions of the brain along with certain personality traits suggests the brain can be trained to manage certain levels of stress and anxiety.
Personality Traits and Anxiety
Researchers at the University of Illinois recently looked at a sample of college students to see how certain personality traits protect an individual’s brain against emotional distress like anxiety and depression. The study looked specifically at how the brain’s prefrontal cortex, certain personality traits, and symptoms of anxiety and depression are all linked.
Researchers collected data from MRI scans of 85 college students who also completed questionnaires about emotions, personality, anxiety, and depression. Researchers found that the size of a person’s prefrontal cortex predicted resiliency in study participants, which then predicted lower levels of anxiety.
So, what does that all mean? People with a larger prefrontal cortex were more resilient and exhibited lower levels of anxiety. On the other hand, people who suffered from higher levels of anxiety exhibited fewer personality traits linked to resilience.
Resiliency is the ability to cope with and recover from a difficulty or crisis. In the University of Illinois study, resiliency was examined by looking at certain personality traits and their relationship to specific brain regions. The personality traits this particular study looked at were:
- Optimism – hopefulness or a positive outlook on the future,
- Positive Affect – a person’s tendency to experience positive emotions and to deal with life’s challenges in a positive way, and
- Cognitive Reappraisal – the ability to recognize a pattern of negative thoughts and change that thought pattern.
All of these traits affect how an individual copes with emotional challenges. People who are optimistic and are high in positive affect have an easier time calming themselves down when they feel types of emotional distress. This is likely because they are able to look positively at the situation and the future, knowing that whatever is happening now will not be happening forever.
It makes sense that people who have these traits are more likely to have lower levels of anxiety. It is also easy to see how people who, for instance, are unable to get themselves out of a negative thought spiral would experience higher levels of anxiety and emotional distress. The good news is that this research is shedding light on how people may be able to train their brains to have these traits.
Training the Brain
The researchers at the University of Illinois believe that the brain can be trained to learn the behaviors that can help avoid certain negative emotions like anxiety. This could be especially helpful in lower anxiety situations like taking a test, going to the doctor, or before a job interview.
Currently, researchers are working on identifying which regions of the brain need to be functioning at a high volume and which personality traits are needed in order to figure out ways to combat anxiety and depression. They believe that cognitive behavioral intervention (brain training) could be developed to target certain brain areas. They think this is a possibility, in part, because brain volume changes through experience and training. People can develop new skills, like new strategies for regulating emotions that have a more positive approach. These new skills actually impact the brain, which is always learning and changing.
Certain things like language development have a very particular window when the brain absorbs that information and can absorb the most change. But with certain types of emotional development, the window is not as certain or as well-defined. So researchers believe if you teach someone certain skills that can help alter personality traits like optimism or cognitive reappraisal, that person can learn to combat some level of anxiety and depression.
Potential Impact on Treatment
This research could have a great impact on how psychology looks at treating emotional distress and a person’s emotional well-being. Researchers still do not fully understand how the brain and personality traits protect a person from this type of emotional distress. The exciting thing is that they are working to understand it.
Today, around one in eight children are affected by anxiety. If researchers can develop the right combination of brain research, personality, and symptoms to approach treating anxiety, hopefully that number will drop dramatically in the next decade. That is not to say that anxiety or other types of emotional distress will be wiped out. What it may mean is that fewer people have uncontrollable anxiety, or that more people are able to control low-level anxiety.
The brain’s ability to change and adapt is an amazing thing. The fact that researchers are using the brain’s ability to learn and change to combat a problem also caused by the brain is a pretty cool thing to think about. Maybe one day in the near future part of the treatment for anxiety will include therapy sessions to train a person’s brain to feel less emotional distress. It would be an amazing thing to have a world with a little less stress and anxiety.
WANT TO READ MORE?
Check out this article on Managing Your Anxiety as a Mom.
Sources: Anxiety & Depression Association of America Facts and Statistics, How Our Brain and Personality Provide Protection Against Emotional Distress, What is Resiliency and Why is it so Important?, Positive Affect and Stress, Improve Your Perspective Using Cognitive Reappraisal, Social Influences on Neuroplasticity: stress and interventions to promote well-being, Living with Anxiety: Children and Teens