Stress, Brain Size and Personality: A Study

Does the volume of certain areas of your brain, along with certain personality traits, protect you against anxiety, depression and mental distress?

Do you, or did you, breeze through tests in school? Or were you stressed about every quiz?

Does risk-taking make you excited or make you hide in the corner?

Are you fearful of the future or striding boldly into it?

As it turns out, the difference may lie in the size of your brain.

Well, the volume of specific areas of your brain, that is. That, along with having certain personality traits might make the difference between confidence and anxiety, depression and happiness.

At least, that’s what a new study says.

A group of researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois recently examined 85 students. They were trying to determine how a specific set of personality traits might protect the human brain against the symptoms of emotional distress, such as depression and anxiety.

Matt Moore, a Beckman Institute graduate fellow and co-author of the study said “In this study, we wanted to look at commonalities across brain regions and across personality traits that contribute to protective factors. We targeted a number of regions in the prefrontal cortex, looking specifically at the volume of those regions using structural magnetic resonance imaging. We did a confirmatory factor analysis, which is basically a statistical approach for testing whether there is a common factor underlying the observed measurements.”

Previously, in order to study resiliency in young adults, research has looked at how specific brain regions and certain personality traits, such as optimism, positive affect and cognitive reappraisal, intersect to affect brain health. These personality traits positively effect how individuals cope with emotional challenges.

Sanda Dolcos, a research scientist in psychology and study co-author, added “We knew from the clinical literature that there are relationships between brain volume and certain personality traits. Lower brain volume in certain areas is associated with increased anxiety.”

The study, “Neuro-Behavioral Mechanisms of Resilience against Emotional Distress: An Integrative Brain-Personality-Symptom Approach using Structural Equation Modeling,” was recently published in Personality Neuroscience. It used structural MRI to map and measure the frontal cortical areas of the subjects, then combined that information with questionnaires identifying the personality traits involved.

This provided evidence that there are common factors in brain structure and personality that can help provide adaptive behavior in order to avoid negative emotions. Moore said, “In a statistical model, 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.”

The researchers believe that identifying these brain regions, along with the specific personality traits listed above, will help create ways for individuals to combat anxiety and depression. Dolcos added, “We are interested in cognitive behavioral intervention. We have identified a resilience factor, which relates to detailed components in the prefrontal cortex, so cognitive interventions would target those brain areas.”

Since brain volume can change, and neural plasticity remains available to healthy individuals late into life, training the brain to adopt traits like optimism and cognitive reappraisal is likely to provide ways to better deal with emotional distress.

“People are not necessarily aware of how plastic the brain is,” Dolcos said. “We can change the volume of the brain through experience and training. 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.”

“This study gives us the coordinates of the brain regions that are important as well as some traits that are important,” Moore said. “As the next step, we can then try and engage this plasticity at each of these levels and then train against a negative outcome.”

This study helps to reinforce the concept that overcoming the often debilitating affects of emotional distress like depression, anxiety and other emotional and mental disorders may be possible without pharmacological intervention.

Meditation, positive affirmations and reframing may all be powerful ways to create mental and emotional resilience and prevent emotional disorders from ruling the lives of those they effect. This is absolutely positive news for the millions who suffer from emotional disorders and mental/emotional distress.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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