Want to Make Your Brain Less Anxious? Try Optimism

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The human brain is marvelous. Research is showing that there may actually be feedback loops between what we think/do and the physical structure of our brain. Astonishingly, those structural changes could affect the way we think going forward.

Your brain keeps changing. It may be possible to harness that power for good!

Neuro-Acrobatics?

Ever since childhood I’ve been awe struck by the adaptability of the human brain.

My mother’s Multiple Sclerosis exacerbations and subsequent complete (or near complete) recovery always blew me away. One month she would lose her sight, be unable to use her left side, have difficulty speaking, feel that her legs were leaden. Then, a few months later, following a course of medicine and therapy, she was good as new.

I learned that her autoimmune disorder caused her body to attack and destroy the insulation for her nerves thereby weakening or completely disrupting signals from her brain to her body. But with time, her brain would find new ways to get the message out. The scars on her brain remained, but she recovered.

Incredible!

This is but one example of the brain’s neuroplasticity. 

Thought Patterns May Build Permanent Pathways

In the middle of a recent disagreement with my partner he mentioned in passing that it seems like when I think of future things, I often sound as though I’ve already given up. I’m quick to jump to hopeless.

To an extent he’s right.

Eternal optimist Kristin hasn’t seen the light of day in probably 20 years.

Life in a dysfunctional family is neither easy nor particularly safe for the optimistic youth. When it comes time to wonder whether those who pose a threat to you will somehow magically change or you’re subconsciously working out how to protect your psyche from the constant disappointment of broken promises, last minute changes and general instability the best thing to do is to start preparing yourself early for things to take a turn for the worst.

Then, at least, when the worst occurs you’ll be ready. Or so you believe.

All of this protective pessimism may alter the very structure of the brain.  At the very least it appears that being pessimistic deprives the brain of the positive structural changes that optimism provides.

It is pretty intuitive that there may be a negative correlation between optimism and anxiety. In other words, we tend to assume that optimistic people are less anxious and anxious people are more pessimistic.

But there may actually be something happening in the brain to explain and potentially proactively engage this correlation.

Believing in Change Brings About… Change?

Specifically, a recent study is lending credibility to the idea that trait optimism is linked to reduced anxiety in two ways:

  1. Larger gray matter volume in the orbitofrontal cortex (an area of the brain directly behind the eyes) is associated with increased optimism, which reduces anxiety.
  2. Optimism appears to have some affect on increases in gray matter volume, which may protect against anxiety. In other words being optimistic may cause structural changes that reduce anxiety.

Fascinating!

What Can We Do With This Information?

Unfortunately, it isn’t quite clear how much we can do by simply learning to think positive or internalizing “The Secret.”

But what if we can?

I hope that as brain science grows we might find answers to crucial questions in protecting against anxiety. Can optimism truly be learned? Can it be learned well enough to fool your brain? Can you learn it well enough to alter your brain’s structure and reduce your anxiety?

Is optimism merely a habit? Is it engrained? Is it learned from parents? Is it coded in our DNA? Inherited? Can we fix it with CBT? Interpersonal therapy? Exercise? Medication? Diet changes (e.g., increased magnesium)?

Or do we just have to accept that we know the why, not the how, when it comes to anxiety? Or worse, we know the why, but we must accept that “it is what it is?”

As an anxious person, I have worried about the dangers of living my life without the protection of pessimism for a very long time.

But maybe there’s some middle road. Flexible optimism?

There’s something to think on. Seriously.

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