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: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neuronarrative/201801/problem-solving-buffers-the-brain-against-anxiety
2. Definition of Anxiety: https://psychologydictionary.org/anxiety/
3. The original study: https://academic.oup.com/cercor/article/29/1/70/4637600