Anxiety and Problem Solving

Anxiety is defined by the Psychology Dictionary as a “mood state characterized by worry, apprehension, and somatic symptoms.” Everyone experiences it at some point in their life, and in varying forms and intensities. There is ongoing research within the fields of medicine and psychology on how to minimize the frequency and severity of anxiety within individuals who experience it regularly. You may be aware of some of these treatments; SSRIs and SNRIs, cognitive-behavioral, group, and exposure therapies, and so forth. However, you may not know of alternative forms of treatment and self-care that have been found to reduce anxiety in certain individuals.

I would like to show you a fascinating article from Psychology Today, which highlights a brain imaging study conducted by Duke University in 2017. Researchers assessed a group of 120 participants to find out which were most at-risk in terms of responding to anxiety triggers. They did so by exposing participants to stimuli designed to stimulate the brain areas most associated with threats and rewards. Threats cause activation in the amygdala, sometimes resulting in the fight-or-flight response, while the ventral striatum is responsible for regulating motivation and emotions related to reward. The researchers then asked participants to complete a problem-solving task; in this case, a simple math-based memory task, to stimulate activity in their brains’ dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DPC). The DPC is known to be the executive control center of the brain, meaning that it regulates the problem-solving procedures that enable us to overcome obstacles and reach solutions, otherwise known as “goal states.”

The study found that by completing the memory task, participants were consequently less responsive to the threat and reward stimuli usually provoked by stimulation of the amygdala and ventral striatum. In other words, occupying the participants’ prefrontal cortex with cognitive tasks seemed to deter their brains from amplifying the extreme threat and limited reward responses to anxiety. This reduction in symptoms allows for increased mental clarity, higher overall positivity, and (presumably) higher productivity in sufferers of anxiety. What excites me about studies like this is the potential for basic lifestyle choices and task management to be combined with other treatments to significantly decrease or eliminate symptoms of anxiety in its most severe forms. With the increasing knowledge of the brain, which areas are associated with specific functions, and how personal adaptations can lead to greater physiological wellness, I am optimistic about the future of mental health research and development.

Cognition is dependent on a lot of processes; memory, communication, learning, and much more. All of these tasks (and more) are assisted, to some degree, by problem-solving. As you saw with this study, problem-solving can serve to help with more than just overcoming obstacles and forming solutions. If you are interested in learning more about the processes through which we use rules such as algorithms and heuristics to simplify life in a complex world, check out this video from Crash Course (specifically 3:21-5:46):


1. Main article:

2. Definition of Anxiety:

3. The original study:

8 thoughts on “Anxiety and Problem Solving

  1. mbright

    I can definitely say I experience some form of anxiety. A lot of the times I feel like I probably do bring it upon myself. Being as I’m a huge procrastinator. If I would work on my time management I could possibly be a lot less prone to anxiety.

    1. chadvelezis Post author

      Some of your anxiety may be self-induced, but don’t neglect the effects that your physical well-being and external environments have on your anxiety. I am a horrible procrastinator too, and part of that comes from working better under pressure, but that still wears me down and leaves me mentally crashing after the wave passes..keep on working to establish productive and balanced habits!

  2. msuprise

    I don’t know if this is related to the study, but I usually experience a lot of feelings of anxiety when I think about doing a task, but once I am physically doing the task, the feelings of anxiety simmer down. I guess this can be related because the process of actually doing a task can occupy the mind and take some of the active thinking away from the problem at hand, similar to the findings.

    1. chadvelezis Post author

      You make great points, and from my experiences, anxiety quickly subsides once you overcome the major hurdles of a situation. This is especially true for public speaking and presentations. Once you focus your attention on the content you are trying to present, your cognitive resources are less available to be redirected/externalized as anxiety.

  3. dnewman

    This is a very interested concept. Obviously there are a lot of people in the U.S. that suffer from anxiety, and who go to doctors to help treat it, but like this says, sometimes thats not the best way. As weird as this sounds I am a big fan of distractions. If you’re having a bad day, doing something and “getting out of your head” is honestly one of the most helpful medications.

    1. Emily Beitzell

      I totally agree! Distractions are what help me the most. Although they may not be the most productive solution to anxiety, they provide an outlet to the anxiety. You can go back to whatever you need to do with a clearer more relaxed mind.

  4. haeason

    Wow, as someone who suffers from general anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder, this is really interesting to me. It is really incredible how something so simple could have such a big impact, I’m really excited to see where research goes with this!

    1. chadvelezis Post author

      There are so many methods of managing anxiety, some more costly and complex than others. Finding what works for you is crucial for tackling the triggers and circumstances that worsen your anxiety. I am super excited to see what future research brings in terms of new treatment methods!

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