Problem Solving Buffers the Brain Against Anxiety
A new study shows why working through a few problems may be an anxiety elixir.
Posted January 17, 2018
When it comes to managing anxiety, science just lent more credibility to the advice to “stay busy.” Engaging the brain to stay busy with problem-solving appears to be an effective buffer against debilitating anxiety, especially in those prone to the worst of the condition, according to a new brain imaging study from Duke University researchers.
The research team assessed a group of 120 participants to find out which were most at-risk in terms of responding to anxiety triggers. Peoples' brains most prone to anxiety tend to display a bigger response to threats and a lower response to rewards, so researchers exposed participants to stimuli designed to trigger a response from the brain areas most associated with threats and rewards (the amygdala and ventral striatum, respectively).
They also asked the participants to complete a problem-solving task (a simple memory problem involving a little math) to stimulate activity in their brains’ executive control center—the seat of problem-solving—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DPC).
Brain imaging showed that the highest threat and lowest reward responses predicted high levels of anxiety in participants who had low or average DPC activity, but not in participants with high DPC activity. In other words, stimulating the problem-solving center of at-risk individuals’ brains seemed to protect them from the worst effects of anxiety. A follow-up evaluation and brain scan of the study participants seven months later confirmed the initial findings.
"These findings help reinforce a strategy whereby individuals may be able to improve their emotional functioning—their mood, their anxiety, their experience of depression—not only by directly addressing those phenomena, but also by indirectly improving their general cognitive functioning," said study co-author Ahmad Hariri, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke.
Though the results are promising, a couple of caveats are worth noting. The most important is a matter of interpretation: the study could be interpreted to show that pre-existing wiring of certain brains provides this in-built anxiety protection, while other brains simply lack it. If that’s the case, then it wouldn’t be accurate to say that problem-solving is an effective buffer against anxiety for anyone with the condition, but only those with brains fortunate enough to be wired that way.
On the other hand, it’s also possible that the effect is a matter of degree. Perhaps some brains are wired a bit more fortunately, but maybe it just takes a little more problem-solving stimulation in other brains to catalyze the same protective effect.
Those questions remain open, at least for now. In the shorter term, the results point to new directions in anxiety research and give anxiety sufferers a worthwhile reason to stay busy.
The study was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.