Are You Resilient? Your Brain May Hold the Answer

New research explores regions of the brain that promote well-being.

Posted Sep 01, 2018

SunKids/Shutterstock
Source: SunKids/Shutterstock

A groundbreaking research study of healthy young adults recently published in Personality Neuroscience by Cambridge University Press examined the associations among the prefrontal cortical regions of the brain, personality traits related to resilience, and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Findings showed that the volume of the prefrontal cortex predicted resiliency in young people, which in turn, predicted lower anxiety.

This is important news, as anxiety is among the most common mental stressors of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Anxiety disorders often coexist with depression, eating disorders, ADHD, and others diagnoses in school-age children. Research shows that untreated anxiety can lead to poor school performance, unfulfilling relationships, and substance abuse. It is estimated that one in eight children are affected by anxiety.

The Prefrontal Cortex and Anxiety

The prefrontal cortex is known to contribute to an individual’s ability to cope with emotional challenges in three ways. First, it assesses, evaluates, interprets, and responds to emotional situations. Psychologists call this cognitive reappraisal.  Second, it is the part of the brain where a person feels positive sensations and emotions, called positive affect. And third, it is where an individual feels optimism. The more the brain engages with these regions, the more it is protected against emotional distress and the more adaptive it becomes.

This study was conducted at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The data came from a group of 85 healthy young participants who underwent MRI scanning of their brains. They also completed questionnaires related to emotional regulation, personality, anxiety, and depression. Complex data analysis was carried out for testing brain region volumes, as well as personality and distress symptom measures.

Interestingly, the data showed that greater prefrontal cortex volume was associated with lower anxiety, but the data did not show the same significant association for depression.

Other studies have supported the premise that brain volume is related to resiliency, traits that are associated with cognitive reappraisal, positive affect, and optimism. What makes this study unique is that it showed a relationship between three important factors. Specifically, the study was the first to associate brain volume of the prefrontal cortex, resilience, and lower anxiety.  

The Brain and Behavior

Why should this study provide optimism?

Neuroscientists already know that the brain and human behavior are intertwined. They understand that brain volume can be modified in response to life experiences. This occurs through the power of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize itself as the result of new learning experiences.

The results of this study are encouraging for children and adults suffering from anxiety, supporting promising interventions designed to change the structure of the brain. It also reinforces research that resilience and well-being can be enhanced through social relationships and training (Davidson & McEwen, 2012).

By identifying personality and brain characteristics that protect against distress and anxiety, this study will help researchers and psychologists target change in areas of the brain that matter most to well-being. It is a valuable contribution to the development of future tools aimed at reducing anxiety and promoting the development of healthy, adaptive children and adults.

References

Davidson, R. J., & McEwen, B. S. (2012). Social influences on neuroplasticity: Stress and interventions to promote well-being. Nature Neuroscience, 15, 689–695. doi.org/10.1038/nn.3093

Moore, M., Culpepper, S., Phan, K. L., Strauman, T. J., Dolcos, F., & Dolcos, S. (2018). Neurobehavioral Mechanisms of Resilience Against Emotional Distress: An Integrative Brain-Personality-Symptom Approach Using Structural Equation Modeling. Personality Neuroscience, 1(e8), 1-10. doi:10.1017/pen.2018.11