Mentally challenging yourself curbs anxiety and depression, new research shows
Duke University researchers found that stimulating brain regions dealing with abstract reasoning and cognitive flexibility alleviate anxiety and depression.
I recall the different methods I used to employ to fight off panic attacks. Cleaning was a popular choice. When the attacks became more regular during college my dorm room was spotless. Then there were cardiovascular hacks: running, either around the block or on a treadmill, often alleviated the physiological surge, as well as sex, which not only increased my heart and breathing rates but also gave my mind a point of focus.
These were all methods during an attack, however. What about training your brain to stave off attacks in the first place? A new study from Duke University, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, claims that activating and strengthening a few brain regions helps keep both anxiety and depression at bay.
Duke professor of psychology and neuroscience Ahmad Hariri had already discovered that people suffering from high threat response and low reward response are more susceptible to developing anxiety and depression. For this study he switched things around:
We wanted to address an area of understanding mental illness that has been neglected, and that is the flip side of risk. We are looking for variables that actually confer resiliency and protect individuals from developing problems.
And so 120 Duke undergrads filled out mental health questionnaires and underwent fMRI scans. The researchers stimulated the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—a more recently evolved brain region responsible for executive functions such as working memory, abstract reasoning, cognitive flexibility, and emotional regulation, as well as the end point for interaction with stimulation—by having them answer memory-based math problems.
Following the math questions the volunteers had their amygdala stimulated by looking at angry or scared faces, following by a reward-based game that activated their ventral striatum, a component of the brain’s motor and reward systems. Higher activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex means less likelihood they’ll develop anxiety. Harari continues,
These findings help reinforce a strategy whereby individuals may be able to improve their emotional functioning — their mood, their anxiety, their experience of depression — not only by directly addressing those phenomena, but also by indirectly improving their general cognitive functioning.
Next up for Harari is research on whether complex mental operations improve the functioning of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex or if each problem is task-specific. While methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy, working memory training, and transcranial magnetic stimulation help at-risk patients deal with anxiety and depression, Harari plans on finding out whether complex games have therapeutic potential. It will also be important to study older volunteers, as college students do not yet have fully formed prefrontal cortexes; that region is not developed until the mid-twenties.
Focusing has always been an important ally for dealing with pending attacks, at least anecdotally and through conversations with other anxiety sufferers. Whether cardiovascular-stimulating responses like running and sex or cognitive training with games, focus is the key element—an important reminder for anyone starting to slip into the dark spiral of depression or a panic attack. During the moment focus is necessary, but it appears training helps you avoid the attack in the first place.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.
No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.
A NASA astronomer explains how astronauts dispose of their, uh, dark matter.
- When nature calls in micro-gravity, astronauts must answer. Space agencies have developed suction-based toilets – with a camera built in to ensure all the waste is contained before "flushing".
- Yes, there have been floaters in space. The early days of space exploration were a learning curve!
- Amazingly, you don't need gravity to digest food. Peristalsis, the process by which your throat and intestines squeeze themselves, actually moves food and water through your digestive system without gravity at all.
She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.
- For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
- These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
- Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.
- The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
- Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
- Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.