How Personality Affects Anxiety Is Complicated, But There's A Big Silver Lining To Be Found
If you deal with anxiety, you know that, at the very least, it can be irritating, and at its worst, it can be crippling. Anxiety affects about 40 million American adults every year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, so if the condition is something you live with, rest assured you're not alone. And while it might not surprise you that there are elements of your personality that might make you more prone to anxiety, new research shows how your personality can not only affect anxiety, but maybe even protect you from it, too. It's a tricky thing to understand, but knowing how these two things affect each other could be really helpful in figuring out ways to treat your own anxiety symptoms.
So here's the deal: Per ScienceDaily, researchers from the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois recently looked at how a variety of personality traits can potentially protect someone's brain against the negative effects of things like anxiety and depression. Now, according to the researchers, previous studies have already confirmed that "there are relationships between brain volume and certain personality traits." Study co-author Sanda Dolcos, a research scientist in psychology, said in a statement, "Lower brain volume in certain areas is associated with increased anxiety."
With that in mind, the researchers looked at the brains and personality traits of 85 healthy college students for their study. According to ScienceDaily, questionnaires were used to measure the students' personalities, and magnetic resonance imaging (aka a fancy way to look at detailed images of the brain and its various structures) was used to look at their brain volume.
So here's where things get a little more complicated to understand. In order for the researchers to figure out the true effects that personality traits — like optimism, for instance — can have on a person's experience with anxiety, Matt Moore, a Beckman Institute graduate fellow and co-author of the study, explained in a statement that they had to do something called a "confirmatory factor analysis," which is basically a way to reveal "a common factor underlying the observed measurements," he said in a statement. So, the way to find that common factor between personality and anxiety is through a really dense, complex statistical approach — really, all you need to know at this point is that the results, which have been published in the journal Personality Neuroscience, showed that, when certain areas of the brain have a larger volume, it translates to higher levels of protective personality traits like optimism and positive affect.
But this is arguably the most important part of this whole thing: According to Dolcos, "people are not necessarily aware of how plastic the brain is." In other words, just because a brain scan shows that you have a lower volume of a certain part of your brain, that doesn't necessarily mean you can't do anything to change those circumstances — yes, you can literally change your brain. "We can change the volume of the brain through experience and training," Dolcos said in a statement. "I teach brain and cognition, and students are so empowered at the end of the course because they realize that they are in charge. It means that we can work on developing new skills, for instance, new emotion regulation strategies that have a more positive approach, and can actually impact the brain."
That approach Dolcos is describing has a name: cognitive behavioral therapy, and you may have already heard of it, but perhaps now you have a better idea of how it actually affects you from the inside out. In case you're not familiar with it, though, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), according to the American Psychological Association (APA), is an approach that's all about using thinking patterns to change your behaviors, and in the process, it really does change the way your brain works, and as a result, how you respond to things like stress, anxiety, etc. Some examples of CBT practices, per the APA, include problem-solving methods to navigate difficult situations, facing your fears instead of avoiding them, and learning strategies that help you calm down both mentally and physically.
Now, just as a side note, this does not mean that people who are anxious or depressed can just "decide to get better" by thinking differently, and by thinking differently alone. It just means that researchers are finding out more information about these types of behavioral treatments and how effective they are for treating things like anxiety. The evidence continues to mount in support of the benefits of CBT, so if you're someone who deals with anxiety, it's definitely an approach that's worth looking into.