How op­ti­mism eases anx­i­ety

Lesotho Times - - Health -

IT isn’t easy be­ing anx­ious. You can’t sleep, you can’t con­cen­trate, you’re tired and cranky. The good news: Curb­ing your anx­i­ety may be eas­ier than you think – per­haps as easy as say­ing “thank you”.

Anx­i­ety tends to turn peo­ple in­ward, make them more in­tro­spec­tive and, there­fore, less so­cially en­gaged.

Pre­vi­ously, sci­en­tists have shown that peo­ple who are more self-fo­cused ex­pe­ri­ence greater lev­els of anx­i­ety.

Two psy­chol­o­gists at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia re­cently de­cided to test whether acts of kind­ness, al­ready shown by re­searchers to in­crease a per­son’s hap­pi­ness, might also help al­le­vi­ate so­cial anx­i­ety.

In a study pub­lished in the journal Mo­ti­va­tion and Emo­tion, Jennifer Trew and Lynn Alden de­scribed their study of 115 so­cially anx­ious col­lege stu­dents.

The two re­searchers di­vided their sub­jects into three groups. The first group was asked to en­gage in three acts of kind­ness a day, two days a week, over a pe­riod of four weeks. Ex­am­ples of acts of kind­ness by the par­tic­i­pants in­cluded wash­ing a room­mate’s dishes, mow­ing a neigh­bour’s lawn and do­nat­ing to char­ity.

The second group was asked to in­sert them­selves into, or ex­pose them­selves to, so­cial sit­u­a­tions, also over a four-week span. These sit­u­a­tions in­cluded ask­ing a stran- ger for the time, talk­ing with a neigh­bour, and ask­ing an­other per­son to lunch.

Sub­jects were also in­structed to do deep-breath­ing ex­er­cises be­fore­hand to make their tasks eas­ier to per­form.

The third group, the con­trol, was asked to keep a di­ary of per­sonal events.

The re­sults: The first group, who en­gaged in acts of kind­ness, “ex­pe­ri­enced a greater over­all re­duc­tion in avoidance goals”. That is, they ex­pe­ri­enced fewer in­stances of avoid­ing so­cial sit­u­a­tions be­cause of their fear of re­jec­tion or con­flict.

Trew and Alden con­cluded that “acts of kind­ness may help to strengthen so­cial re­la­tion­ships, in­crease so­cial en­gage­ment, and broaden so­cial net­works”.

“We found that any kind act ap­peared to have the same ben­e­fit, even small ges­tures, like open­ing a door for some­one or say­ing ‘thanks’ to the bus driver,” Alden said.

Be­ing out­wardly di­rected and en­gag­ing in acts of kind­ness have also been linked to op­ti­mism. In an­other re­cent study, sci­en­tists linked gray mat­ter vol­ume in the left or­bitofrontal cor­tex, the area right

be­hind your left eye, to in­creased op­ti­mism and de­creased anx­i­ety.

The more gray mat­ter, the more op­ti­mistic the per­son.

The more op­ti­mistic, the less anx­ious.

Pre­vi­ous re­search has shown that brain anatomy can change in re­sponse to pes­simism. When Ja­panese sci­en­tists tracked changes in the brain anatomy of young adults af­ter Ja­pan’s 2011 earth­quake and tsunami, they dis­cov­ered the or­bitofrontal cor­tex in many of their sub­jects had at­ro­phied and shrunk.

Those who lost the most vol­ume in the left hemi­sphere of their or­bitofrontal cor­tex had a greater like­li­hood of be­ing di­ag­nosed with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

In this lat­est study, pub­lished in the journal So­cial, Cog­ni­tive and Af­fec­tive Neu­ro­science, re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Ur­bana-cham­paign looked at the brain anatomy of 61 healthy young adults, and then ad­min­is­tered a se­ries of psy­cho­log­i­cal tests.

By cal­cu­lat­ing the vol­ume of gray mat­ter in cer­tain brain struc­tures rel­a­tive to over­all brain vol­ume, they dis­cov­ered that the sub­jects who were most op­ti­mistic and least anx­ious, also ex­hib­ited the great­est vol­ume of neu­rons on the left side of their or­bitofrontal cor­tex.

The hope, said the sci­en­tists, is that cog­ni­tive ther­a­pies can be de­signed to boost op­ti­mism in par­tic­u­larly anx­ious peo­ple, thereby alle­vi­at­ing their emo­tional dis­tress. — The Wash­ing­ton Post

sci­en­tists have shown that peo­ple who are more self-fo­cused ex­pe­ri­ence greater lev­els of anx­i­ety.

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