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Inspired living

How you can beat anxiety with optimism


Hands being held up towards a sunrise

Credit: iStock

You’ve either had it said to you or you’ve said it to someone else: “Don’t be anxious about it.” It might well be sound advice but it’s not really all that helpful without some way to overcome the anxiety in question. Now a new study suggests that optimism might be answer because of how it affects the part of the brain involved in anxiety.

The part of the brain in question is the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is located just behind the eyes. The OFC is known to play a role in anxiety and a smaller OFC is linked to greater anxiety. Studies have shown for instance that the OFC will significantly shrink within months of a major negative life event. On the other hand, optimism is linked to greater OFC activity and optimistic people do tend to be less anxious.

It emerged that people with a thicker OFC on the left hand side of the brain had higher optimism and lower anxiety. No other brain structures showed such a link. The projection from all of this is that optimism does structurally alter your brain and it seems that the alterations reduce anxiety.

These researchers theorised that optimism might increase the size of the OFC and act as a kind of preventative against anxiety. Whereas most previous research has looked at the effect on the OFC in people with anxiety, the researchers wanted to see if healthy, optimistic people would show signs of their protective optimism in their OFC. So they collected MRIs of healthy people and analysed the structure of a number of brain regions in each subject. The subjects also completed tests to measure their optimism, anxiety and depression.

It emerged that people with a thicker OFC on the left hand side of the brain had higher optimism and lower anxiety. No other brain structures showed such a link. The projection from all of this is that optimism does structurally alter your brain and it seems that the alterations reduce anxiety.

The researchers say that this may mean that if you can find tasks that will build up the OFC then you might have a treatment for anxiety. There certainly is reason for optimism there and, in the meantime, why not be optimistic anyway? Looking on the bright side only leads to happiness … and you are undertaking positive brain renovations in the process.



 

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.