Just Another Teachin’ Tuesday: Is Worry a Good Thing?

A new study of brain activity in those enduring depression and anxiety indicates some of the ill effects of depression are modified — for better or for worse — by anxiety.

Hmmm – this could be interesting. We certainly know depression and anxiety all too often co-exist. And we know the anxiety piece can make depression so much more difficult to tolerate. But what about the “for better” part?Well, the study took into account the impact of anxious arousal, the sense of fear and vigilance that often leads to panic; as well as anxious apprehension, a.k.a., good old-fashioned worry.

And  functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) was used to take a peak at the brain activity in subects who were depressed and not anxious, anxious but not depressed, or who presented with varying degrees of depression and one or both types of anxiety.

What makes this study unique is the examination of depression as it presents with two specific types of anxiety, as opposed to simply “anxiety.”

And it’s a good thing two presentations of anxiety were observed, because the study found brain activity was different for each. It seems anxious arousal lit-up the right inferior temporal lobe (that would be just behind the ear); whereas worry lit-up the left frontal lobe, associated with the production of speech. FYI – depression activates a portion of the right frontal lobe.

But things got really interesting when the researchers discovered anxious arousal ramped-up activity in the very same portion of the right frontal lobe that’s active in depression. But that only occurred when levels of worry were low.

Even more – the worriers, in spite of their depression, performed better on tasks calling for them to stay focused in the midst of emotional distraction, as opposed to those who were depressed and fearful.

Okay, let’s untangle this mess. What does all of this mean?

Well, it seems the experience of a fearful vigilance can ramp-up the brain machinations involved in depression. Conversely, it appears worry counteracts it, resulting in a reduction of some of the ick associated with both depression and fear. And it appears worry may actually help us stay better focused – on task.

For the record, the research team included folks from the University of Illinois, Penn State, and the University of Colorado. And it was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, the Beckman Institute and the Intercampus Research Initiative in Biotechnology.

Pretty heady stuff, I’d say. But, what do you think chipur readers? Comments?