Just think: Study eyes mental method to lower anxiety

New research from Duke University suggests that improving activity in the brain’s “executive control center” may protect against anxiety for at-risk people.

In a nutshell, the study found that clear or complex thinking, or quieting down the thinking process, reduces anxiety and the risk of anxiety disorder.

This study arose from previous research, also conducted at Duke, which showed the brains of people at-risk for anxiety exhibited an intense fear response to threat, but a low pleasure response to reward. Armed with that knowledge, the researchers set out to investigate strategies to help those at-risk for anxiety from developing an anxiety disorder.

About that previous research, Vero Beach clinical neuropsychologist Whitney Legler says, “There are studies that show differences in brain wiring between anxious and non-anxious individuals. Scrambled connections between the part of the brain that processes fear and emotion and other brain regions are associated with anxiety disorders, but researchers can’t say for sure whether the connectivity abnormalities came first, or whether excessive worrying shaped the brain by reinforcing particular neural pathways.”

The researchers, led by Ahmad Hariri, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, focused on the prefrontal cortex – the so-called executive control center – the area of our brains in charge of how we organize our thoughts, think abstractly and make complex plans. Although it seems unrelated to those functions, the prefrontal cortex is also in charge of impulse control and the organization of emotion.

“Anxiety, or any emotion for that matter, is a function of a thought,” says Dr. Legler. “We have no emotions without thoughts. When we focus on changing our thoughts we can generally reduce anxiety.”

In the study, Professor Hariri and his colleagues asked 120 Duke undergraduate students to complete a series of questionnaires assessing their mental health to see if they were at risk for developing an anxiety disorder and to undergo a brain scan while solving math problems to activate their prefrontal cortex. During the scan, the students also were shown images designed to activate their amygdala (the “fear” center of the brain) and ventral striatum (the “pleasure” center).

In follow-up testing conducted several months later, the researchers found that those students at-risk for anxiety because of their “high fear, low pleasure” brain responses were less likely to actually feel anxious if they had high activity in their prefrontal cortex.

Speaking about the study results in terms of the brain’s anxiety markers, Professor Hariri says, “We found that if you have a higher functioning prefrontal cortex, the imbalance in these deeper brain structures is not expressed as changes in mood or anxiety.”

Dr. Legler says, “I suspect this study has captured that there is a diversion process going on – the math problems – which in essence breaks the anxiety-producing thought train.”

In encouraging news for those who suffer from the sometimes-crippling effects of anxiety, the researchers say that the prefrontal cortex is very adaptable, and can be trained to function at a higher level, a strategy that will allow people with anxiety to reduce or stave off symptoms.

According to Dr. Legler, a well-established psychotherapy technique called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be effective as a prefrontal cortex “exercise.

In CBT, a psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed clinical social worker or other mental-health provider helps the person become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking, so challenging situations can be viewed more clearly and responded to in a more effective way. Dr. Legler also says another effective way to train the prefrontal cortex is mindfulness meditation, which is designed to develop the skill of paying attention to our inner and outer experiences, being present to what is actually happening in the moment, instead of allowing the mind to spin fearful fantasies about what might happen in the future.

A number of mindfulness meditation techniques can be found on the Internet; one is to focus your attention on your breathing, “watching” the breath flow in and out for one minute, 10 minutes or more. Keep your eyes open and breathe normally. Your mind will wander; just keep bringing your attention back to your breathing.

Dr. Legler’s office is located at 3003 Cardinal Drive, Suite A on the barrier island; the office phone is 772-231-5554. 

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