The surprising relationship between brain structures and anxiety

The surprising relationship between brain structures and anxiety

Ask anyone why they’ve ever feel anxious and you’ll get as many answers as there are people. Money’s tight. Career’s going wrong. My kids don’t talk to me anymore. Traffic’s always bad. My glass is half empty.

Now, those are all good reasons to feel anxious. Some of those reasons can be dealt with directly by trying talking to your kids, planning helps with some others: starting a budget, maybe freshening up that resume and as for the rest? Therapists say acknowledging you can’t control everything is the first step to dealing with anxiety. It’s a first step a lot of people should take. Roughly 44 million Americans deal with anxiety disorders, costing up to $47 billion a year. But some people seem to have a leg up when dealing with anxiety. To find out why, the answer might lie behind their eyes.

Anxiety, optimism and the OFC

Our brains are divided up into six regions called lobes, which manage various parts of our body. For example, the occipital lobe at the back of the head controls sight, the temporal lobe by the temples manages smell and sound and the frontal lobe handles conscious thought. Right behind the eyes is a region of the frontal lobe called the orbitofrontal cortex, or OFC. One of its duties is regulating behavior.

There’s a known link between the size of the OFC and anxiety. A study published in Molecular Psychology studied the brain images of young Japanese adults. During the course of the study, the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami occurred. In scans taken after the events the researchers discovered the OFC in some subjects had shrunk. Additionally, those subjects who either had smaller OFCs or underwent OFC shrinkage were more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

Searching for links between optimism and anxiety

Other studies have shown, perhaps unsurprisingly, people who are more optimistic feel less anxious and optimistic thoughts increase activity in the OFC. The University of Illinois’ psychology department recently published a study in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience finding similar results. Speaking to the University of Illinois News Bureau, head researcher Sanda Dolcos, Ph.D., said most studies of anxiety focused on people diagnosed with anxiety disorders. “We wanted to go in the opposite direction. If there can be shrinkage of the orbitofrontal cortex and that shrinkage is associated with anxiety disorders, what does it mean in healthy populations that have larger OFCs? Could that have a protective role?”

The researchers took images of the brains of 61 young adults and examined their structures. They compared the volume of brain matter in each section of the brain to the brain’s total volume. The subjects also took tests measuring their optimism and anxiety, along with depression and positive and negative feelings. Analysis of the results found subjects with higher optimism and less anxiety had thicker OFCs, suggesting optimism plays a role in reducing anxiety in those with larger OFCs. More analysis seemed to show no other brain structures reduce anxiety via boosting optimism. Graduate student and researcher Yifan Hu said “We wanted to know: if we are consistently optimistic about life, would that leave a mark on the brain?” Psychology professor and researcher Florin Dolcos said future studies will examine anxiety can be reduced – and optimism increased – via tasks engaging the OFC directly.

There are steps to combat anxiety that are available right now. The Anxiety Treatment Centers of California offer advice and treatment for a wide variety of anxiety and other mental health disorders. Please contact us at XXX-XXX-XXXX if you or someone you know is dealing with anxiety issues.

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