A seven-letter word for 'worrying'?

Sufferers from anxiety may find relief in a crossword puzzle, a board game, or other pastime demanding concentration

| 21 January 2009

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 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.

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 brains 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," says Sonia Bishop, a Berkeley psychologist and lead author of the brain imaging-study, which was published online by Nature Neuroscience last month.

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 anxious people, when distracted, struggle to activate the prefrontal region of the brain needed to focus on the task at hand.

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.

Beyond flight-or-fight

These recent findings break new ground in understanding the brain circuitry of anxiety, previous investigations into which 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 also due to a slow response in the prefrontal cortex when they are engaged in undemanding pastimes or chores.

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 says, 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.