Anxious? Do a crossword puzzle

Dec 17, 2008 By Yasmin Anwar

Anxious people often engage in mindless distractions to keep from thinking scary or troubling thoughts. But results from a new brain imaging study by a University of California, Berkeley, researcher suggest that brain-sharpening activities - rather than mind-numbing ones - can rein in a restless psyche by activating the region of the brain that commands logical reasoning and concentration.

With an economic crisis and holiday obligations fueling people's anxiety this season, the study's findings could prove helpful to those feeling overwhelmed. Rather than washing the dishes or watching a soap opera to tune out negative thoughts, for example, the results suggest that anxious people might want to train their brain to stay focused via a tough crossword puzzle or game of chess.

"If anything, hard tasks can keep anxious people from being sidetracked and can help them stay on task," said Sonia Bishop, a UC Berkeley psychologist and lead author of the brain imaging study, published online by Nature Neuroscience yesterday on Dec. 14.

Bishop's study shows that people who are overly anxious have a hard time concentrating on mundane tasks such as ironing and filing paperwork, even when they are not imagining worst-case scenarios. This is because, when distracted, anxious people struggle to activate the prefrontal region of the brain needed to focus on the task at hand.

These findings break new ground in understanding the brain circuitry of anxiety because previous anxiety investigations have focused on an overactive amygdala, or fight-or-flight reflex, which alerts the body to protect itself in times of danger. The new findings suggest that poor concentration in anxious people is as much due to a slow response in the prefrontal cortex when they are engaged in undemanding pastimes or chores.

National surveys indicate that one in five adults experience above-average levels of anxiety in a given year. Researchers have established that anxious people have a hard time concentrating, but the source of this difficulty has not been fully understood.

Using functioning Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Bishop and her team conducted the study of 17 men and women, ranging in age from 19 to 48, at Cambridge University. They scored in standardized tests as having varying levels of anxiety, but were not on medication. Their brains were scanned as they performed letter-searching tasks on a screen.

Each time they saw an "N" or "X" in a string of letters, they had to press a corresponding button. At times, the Ns and Xs were easy to spot, and at other times they were buried among long strings of letters. To present a distraction, a similar but irrelevant letter was placed above or below the letter sequence.

When the letter search was demanding, brain scans showed all the study participants' dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes, which control planning, organization and memory, to be fully engaged. But when the letter search was easy, the prefrontal brain activity in high-anxiety participants plummeted as their attention wandered. In contrast, low-anxiety participants easily activated the prefrontal brain to focus on the task at hand when presented with distractions.

"The results go a long way in explaining the general day-to-day difficulties in concentration and distractibility associated with clinical anxiety," Bishop said, adding that her new research paves the way for new coping strategies for poor concentration in anxiety, such as mindfulness training and drug therapies that target the prefrontal brain.

Provided by UC Berkeley

Explore further: Organovo has 3D-printed liver tissue for drug testing

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Anxious mice make lousy dads: study

Jun 13, 2012

Normally, male California mice are surprisingly doting fathers, but new research published in the journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology suggests that high anxiety can turn these good dads bad.

Researchers probe causes of math anxiety

May 19, 2011

Math problems make more than a few students - and even teachers - sweat, but new brain research is providing insights into the earliest causes of the anxiety so often associated with mathematics.

Chimp, bonobo study sheds light on the social brain

Apr 05, 2011

It's been a puzzle why our two closest living primate relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, have widely different social traits, despite belonging to the same genus. Now, a comparative analysis of their brains shows neuroanatomical ...

Recommended for you

Organovo has 3D-printed liver tissue for drug testing

20 hours ago

(Medical Xpress)—The commercial release of 3D printed liver tissue was announced earlier this week. Organovo is the company behind the release. The product is intended for use for preclinical drug discovery ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ilovepuzzles
not rated yet Dec 17, 2008
magpies
5 / 5 (1) Dec 18, 2008
Or you could confront your anxiety and grow as a person... That is if you like to grow as a person...
Birger
not rated yet Jun 23, 2009
Or you could confront your anxiety and grow as a person... That is if you like to grow as a person...

Confronting anxiety head-on works for moderate levels of anxiety. But what about the many people with anxiety levels high enough to make it a handicap? Telling those people to just deal with it is as disingenious as telling clinically depressed people to "just think positive".
I am glad that this article points to alternatives to medication as a means to cope with high levels of anxiety.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.