Why are some people more anxious than others? Various studies have linked anxiety to the orbital frontal cortex (OFC), a brain region that integrates intellectual and emotional information, and that is part of behavioral regulation. Research has demonstrated that the size of the OFC correlates to anxiety levels and that optimistic thinking can make the OFC more active. To bridge these ideas, a new study from the University of Illinois investigated whether optimism could mediate the relationship between OFC size and anxiety. The study demonstrated that optimism plays a role in reducing anxiety.
The researchers took MRIs of 61 healthy young adults. They analyzed the structure of multiple brain regions, including the orbital frontal cortex, calculating grey matter volume in each region relative to overall brain volume. The participants completed tests that assessed their levels of optimism, anxiety, depressive symptoms, and positive or negative affect.
Participants with a thicker OFC on the left side of the brain were more likely to have higher optimism and less anxiety. The results demonstrated that optimism was a factor in mediating anxiety reduction in individuals with larger OFCs. Only optimism diminished anxiety—no other positive traits played a role. Additionally, no other brain structures were involved in the relationship between anxiety, optimism, and OFC size.
The researchers suggest that future studies investigate whether it is possible to increase optimism and decrease anxiety by engaging the OFC or training people to be more optimistic. “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,” stated graduate student and study researcher Yifan Hu.
This research is published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neurosciene.
Previous news in anxiety: