A recent study published in the journal Personality Neuroscience made an interesting connection between parts of the brain and their association with both personality and mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. The results give…
A recent study published in the journal Personality Neuroscience made an interesting connection between parts of the brain and their association with both personality and mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. The results give credence to the idea that you can “exercise” parts of the brain, with therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy, to make them larger and, in the process, develop the traits that help protect against those disorders.
Earlier research has shown relationships between brain volume and particular personality traits, with lower brain volume in certain areas associated with increased anxiety, according to the study’s authors. Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to look at areas of the prefrontal cortex of 85 healthy college students, and then they gave them questionnaires that identified personality traits such as optimism or pessimism. They found that there are common factors in brain structure and personality that can help provide adaptive behavior to avoid negative emotions that can lead to symptoms of emotional distress, namely depression and anxiety.
“We found that if you have larger volume in this set of brain regions, you had higher levels of these protective personality traits,” said Matt Moore, a graduate fellow at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois and co-author of the study, in a release.
The researchers wanted to identify these brain regions and specific personality traits to help people learn how to combat anxiety and depression, they say. “We are interested in cognitive behavioral intervention,” said Sanda Dolcos, a research scientist in psychology and one of the study’s authors, in the same release. Brain volume can change based on developing skills that might alter traits like optimism, which indicates that brain training is one way to combat emotional distress. “People are not necessarily aware of how plastic the brain is,” Dolcos said. “We can change the volume of the brain through experience and training.”
“This study gives us the coordinates of the brain regions that are important as well as some traits that are important,” Moore said. “As the next step, we can then try and engage this plasticity at each of these levels and then train against a negative outcome.”
The Key Trait: Resilience
Being proactive, optimistic and hopeful are traits the study associates with protecting against negative emotions and with larger brain volume in the areas that control these traits. “This is in line with the idea that thoughts are connected to physiology, which is connected to emotions, which are connected to behavior,” says Mary Karapetian Alvord, a psychologist in Maryland and adjunct associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “So if you change your thoughts and reframe something with a different perspective, that helps guard against anxiety. There is other research that also says it prevents depression,” says Alvord, a clinical fellow with the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
These traits can be gathered under one umbrella term: resilience. “That is a larger construct and has larger domain than the three [personality traits] the study looked at,” Alvord says. She has researched and written about resilience extensively, and in a chapter that she co-wrote for the APA Handbook of Clinical Psychology, she published a more comprehensive list of protective, resilience-building traits:
— Being proactive: taking the initiative rather than being passive or reactive.
— Self-efficacy: believing in one’s ability to have an impact on outcomes.
— Optimistic and realistic cognitive appraisal: interpreting a person or event in a positive but realistic way to maximize adaptive emotional and behavioral responses.
— Cognitive flexibility: learning how to mentally switch gears and consider alternative perspectives.
— Problem solving: generating possible solutions, evaluating their pros and cons and choosing the most effective plan of action.
— Increasing self-esteem: learning to give oneself credit for personal strengths while maintaining perspective on areas that might benefit from improvement.
— Developing multiple self-regulation and active coping strategies: learning skills to modulate physiological systems and thinking patterns, such as progressive muscle relaxation, calm breathing, visualization and exercise.
— Building relationships: learning social skills (reciprocity, empathy, reading nonverbal cues) to enhance connections with family, peers and the community.
The most important aspect of the newer study, Alvord says, is its emphasis on neuroplasticity. “These protective factors can be learned and fostered. When promoting mental health, we can look at asset building, as opposed to just deficits,” she says. “We can teach everybody these skills — yes, they call it personality trait, but it is really a skill.”
Teaching patients the techniques needed to become more resilient is a goal of many behavioral health therapies, such as cognitive therapy. “These characteristics are things we actively train, to help patients gain perspective on their thoughts. That is a malleable trait,” says Douglas Mennin, professor of counseling and clinical psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University.
As one example, he teaches emotion regulation, “for people with busy minds who worry a lot and ruminate. We train them and show how to change their mind with therapy, not with medication,” says Mennin, who is also chair of the ADAA’s Scientific Council. Traits like optimism and pessimism are also malleable, he says. “The emotion is not as important as what people do with those emotions,” he says. If you can catch yourself in a negative emotion and learn to regulate it, you can lessen its impact on mood. “One overarching theme of the adaptive person is the flexible person. When things are good can you take in the good, and when things are bad you can problem solve,” he says. “You are not as reactive. There is more of a pause. When there is less emotionality, you have an easier time in general.”