Why This Simple Recovery Strategy to Anxiety-Proof Your Brain Is Worth Your Next Five Minutes

“Brain plasticity.” The term frequently gets bandied about these days in the latest studies on addiction and mental health. It’s a fancy way to describe the brain’s inherent capacity to adapt and heal (or deteriorate) over the course of a lifetime, in response to one’s environment, experiences and changing physiology. And for people in recovery from a drug or alcohol addiction and other mental disorders, brain plasticity is like one brightly flashing billboard sign that reads, “You Can Get Better.” The question is, how, practically speaking, can we capitalize on brain plasticity in our recovery?” Studies observing that brain plasticity is a real phenomenon can only help us get so far … until now, that is.

Link Between Optimism and Anxiety

A new study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests that optimism may actually affect the size of a brain structure called the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is crucial in regulating anxiety levels. The bigger your OFC, researchers found, the less anxious you’ll probably be. And probably at least one conduit to getting there is cultivating optimism. Graduate student Yifan Hu was one of the contributing researchers whose report in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience concludes that optimism is a mediator between the size of your OFC and your anxiety levels. “Optimism has been investigated in social psychology for years. But somehow only recently did we start to look at functional and structural associations of this trait in the brain,” Hu said in a University of Illinois news release. “We wanted to know: If we are consistently optimistic about life, would that leave a mark in the brain?” To answer that question, the team of researchers collected MRIs of 61 healthy young adults and analyzed their brain structures, including the volume of their OFC relative to the overall volume of their brains. These same test subjects completed assessments evaluating their optimism and anxiety, depressive symptoms and overall affect. Further statistical analysis and modeling in turn ruled out two possibilities: a) the role of other positive traits besides optimism in decreasing anxiety and b) the role of other brain structures in reducing anxiety by boosting optimism. The implication, in answer to Hu’s question, was that optimism probably does leave a mark on the brain.

Anxiety and Addiction: How Optimism May Buffer the Brain

More studies must follow to reinforce this finding, researchers said, but for now, for people with drug or alcohol addiction and/or dual diagnoses, for whom anxiety can be a major contributor to addictive behaviors and relapse, the takeaway seems to be this: you can reduce your anxiety levels by practicing more optimism in your life. “You can say, ‘OK, there is a relationship between the orbitofrontal cortex and anxiety. What do I do to reduce anxiety?’” said Dr. Sanda Dolcos, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate who led the research with Hu and psychology professor Dr. Florin Dolcos, PhD. “And our model is saying, this is working partially through optimism … so optimism is one of the factors that can be targeted.” Future studies should therefore explore in greater detail how to boost optimism directly, Dr. Florin Dolcos added in the same article — and whether training more optimistic responses will, over time, encode greater capacity to control responses (those previously governed by anxiety) and, in turn, lasting positive changes in brain structure and reducing stress.

Cultivating Optimism: Practical Tips

How, practically speaking, might those with addiction and frequently co-occurring anxiety disorders cultivate optimism? At her blog, “Architects of Change,” NBC News anchor Maria Shriver helps us answer this question. Shriver encourages her readers to be agents of change in their communities and world, by identifying a problem and then working toward its solution. In that spirit, she featured some practical tips for cultivating optimism from Jason Selk. Formerly the director of mental training for the St. Louis Cardinals, Selk helped the Cardinals grab their first World Series win in over 20 years, and he is a sought-after performance coach to professional and Olympic athletes and business executives alike. Selk offered the following (paraphrased) tips for cultivating optimism, which he defined as “a tendency to take a favorable or hopeful view” (and still others appear at Shriver’s blog):

  • Focus on solutions rather than problems.
  • Every day, for just 30 seconds, play a short “movie reel” of your ideal life, and visualize what you’re doing and how you look and feel.
  • Look for and take note of any improvement in your current situation as a positive solution (instead of expecting an immediate, “all-or-nothing,” final solution).
  • Spend just a few seconds every day considering what you did well that day, as a way of getting into the habit of recognizing your “done wells.”

By employing just a few of these very easy practices, those in recovery from a drug or alcohol addiction and/or co-occurring anxiety disorder could be going a long way to build their OFC and reduce anxiety. And that makes brain plasticity sound like something practically attainable, so that the flashing billboard sign that reads “You Can Get Better” now shines brighter.

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