If you have depression or anxiety, you know how challenging these conditions can be. Feelings of hopeless, sadness, and general unease are the last things we need when facing already difficult life events. But the good news is this: research increasingly shows that the human brain is plastic — meaning that we can actually change the physical and neurological networks of our brains. And a new study has found that certain personality traits can help people cope with anxiety and depression thanks to neuroplasticity. These findings have huge implications for those living with anxiety, depression, and other disorders like PTSD.
In order to better understand those factors that contribute to resilience against stress, researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois conducted MRIs on a group of 85 college students in order to examine certain brain regions associated with anxiety and depression. Matt Moore, study co-author and a Beckman Institute graduate fellow explained, “In this study, we wanted to look at commonalities across brain regions and across personality traits that contribute to protective factors.”
Researchers further examined how specific personality traits, like optimism, cognitive reframing — meaning how we shift our views, perceptions, and emotions from negative to more positive interpretations — and the extent to which we cultivate and experience positive emotions like joy and gratitude, all contribute to how well our brains are protected against the symptoms of emotional distress. Not only do these personality traits help to literally change the brain so that it’s less oriented toward depression and anxiety, we can deliberately cultivate them so that we develop better resilience against stress over time.
The study, published in the journal Personality Neuroscience, coupled the MRI scans with personality questionnaires to identify which features — including personality traits and brain structure — help people cope well with stress. Researchers found that those participants with personality attributes that contribute to stress resilience actually had different brain structures. “We extracted these factors, one at the brain level, one at the personality level, and we found that if you have larger volume in this set of brain regions, you had higher levels of these protective personality traits,” Moore said.
According to Medical News Today, people with depression and anxiety have structural changes in their brains that can be seen via imaging scans, which the current study also confirms. But these brain structures aren't 100 percent fixed. The Beckman Institute researchers found that by identifying brain regions associated with depression and anxiety, and cultivating those personality traits that help counter these symptoms, major progress can be made for those living with the symptoms of emotional distress.
Study co-author Sanda Dolcos, a research scientist in psychology, said that “People are not necessarily aware of how plastic the brain is. … We can change the volume of the brain through experience and training.” Dolcos further notes that this research can help develop therapy-based treatments that target and help heal those brain areas most affected by anxiety and depression. While more research is needed to apply these findings, it's interesting to see how our brains can be changed over time.