A new study links optimism and less anxiety with an area in the brain called the Orbitofrontal cortex.
We’ve all heard the false statement that a big head (or brain) means you’re super smart. Believe it or not, that statement might be true when it comes to optimism. According to the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, optimism has an effect on the size of the OFC and may alter anxiety levels.
Scientists report in the U.S alone, anxiety disorders affect roughly 44 million individuals, costing an estimated $42 billion to $47 billion annually.
The orbitofrontal cortex is a region in the brain situated behind the eyes and plays a key role in anxiety. Simply put, the OFC processes intellectual and emotional info for behavioral regulation.
Previous studies have found links between the size of a person's OFC and a person’s susceptibility to anxiety. There’s a well-known study where young adults brains were imaged before and after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It reveals that the OFC actually shrank in some of the participant’s within four months of the disaster. The research also found that those with more OFC shrinkage were more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
Other studies show that optimistic people tend to be less anxious, and that optimism increases activity in OFC area of the brain.
Researchers also have reason to believe that a larger OFC may even buffer against anxiety by boosting optimism.
Previous studies of anxiety have only focused on individuals who have already been diagnosed with anxiety disorders, said University of Illinois researcher Sanda Dolcos, who led the research with graduate student Yifan Hu and psychology professor Florin Dolcos. "We wanted to go in the opposite direction," she said. "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 team collected MRIs of 61 healthy young adults and analyzed the structure of a number of regions in their brains, including the OFC. The researchers calculated the volume of gray matter in each brain region relative to the overall volume of the brain. The study subjects also completed tests that assessed their optimism and anxiety, depression symptoms, and positive (enthusiastic, interested) and negative (irritable, upset) affect.
Analysis of the statistics and molding revealed that a thicker orbitofrontal cortex on the left side of the brain was linked to more optimism and decreased anxiety. The model also suggested that optimism played a role in reducing anxiety in those with larger OFCs.
"You can say, 'OK, there is a relationship between the orbitofrontal cortex and anxiety. What do I do to reduce anxiety?'" Sanda Dolcos said. "And our model is saying, this is working partially through optimism. So optimism is one of the factors that can be targeted."
"Optimism has been investigated in social psychology for years. But somehow only recently did we start to look at functional and structural associations of this trait in the brain," Hu said. "We wanted to know: If we are consistently optimistic about life, would that leave a mark in the brain?"
Florin Dolcos suggests that future studies should test whether training people in tasks that engage the OFC can increase optimism and reduce anxiety or by finding ways to boost optimism directly.
"If you can train people's responses, the theory is that over longer periods, their ability to control their responses on a moment-by-moment basis will eventually be embedded in their brain structure," he stated.
Do you have ways you boost your own optimism and reduce anxiety? Let us know in the comments below.