THE BLOG
12/27/2017 16:05 EST | Updated 12/27/2017 16:23 EST

A Bit More Of This Feeling In Your Life May Help Manage Anxiety

If an emotion can serve the same purpose as some medical treatments, then it may be worth promoting.

It's that time when people tend to declare their New Year's resolutions for the year ahead. Many of these pledges focus on improving health, such as taking on a new diet or exercising more often. Now thanks to a duo of researchers from England and Brazil, you may want to add a new item to the list: hope.

The team has unveiled a rather interesting look at this emotional trait. They have ventured into the science behind this feeling to better understand how it works and whether it may be of use to us. Based on their analysis, when done correctly, the practice may be a means to improve our mental health.

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For most of history, hope was considered to be a philosophical facet of human existence. It was a matter of belief, not science. But a single lecture in 1959 changed the landscape. The presenter, an American psychiatrist named Dr. Karl Menninger, insisted hope was a component of human health and important in therapeutic treatment. Without it, people may have significant hurdles in attaining wellness.

In the 1970s, spurred on by Menninger, research efforts found a way to analyze and measure hope scientifically. These tests eventually gained validation in the community and soon were used to dig deeper into the biology of this emotion. If a mechanism could be found, then its impact on health possibly could be identified.

If an emotion can serve the same purpose as medical treatments such as anti-anxiety medication, then it may be worth promoting.

Over the next few decades, the biological nature of hope was explored to determine if the emotion could be identified. Using neurological techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, better known as fMRI, the results revealed the emotion appeared to be similar to an already well-known process known as the placebo effect. This is defined as the use of optimism, expectation and other positive emotions to sense treatments of any kind, whether they work or not, may appear to be effective during treatment. While the link was not exact researchers had a baseline to better understand the impact of hoping on our brains and overall well-being.

The inevitable breakthrough happened earlier this year when a Chinese team of researchers found a more defined role for hope. Using fMRI the group looked at the brains of over 200 teenagers who were surveyed for their levels of hope and anxiety. The results revealed those with greater hope had lower activity in the region of the brain known as the medial orbitofrontal cortex, or mOFC. This was not unexpected as this area of the brain is known to be involved in causing anxiety when we come across a threatening environment. The real surprise was how hope alone tended to slow down the activity in this area and lower anxiety.

With the biological effect of hope known, the British and Brazilian authors suggest the use of this emotion may offer clinical benefits in the future. After all, if an emotion can serve the same purpose as medical treatments such as anti-anxiety medication, then it may be worth promoting. Yet, figuring out how to improve hope may be as difficult as the journey to determine its purpose.

Thankfully, there have been studies aimed at figuring out how to improve hope in people. Usually, the individuals are suffering from chronic diseases or are facing the end of their lives. Yet this information can still be put to good use by the rest of us to get us hoping more.

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If you decide to make "hoping more" a New Year's resolution, the most important recommendation is to be sure to realize this is not a sole undertaking. It must be a collaborative practice to work to your benefit. While we all perform this emotion individually, there is a risk of falling into a vicious cycle known as "false hope," in which our expectations go much further than reality. This is akin to daydreaming and while it also affects the same region of the brain, the impact can enhance the effects of anxiety rather than diminish them. To get the most out of hope, it's best to do it with others such as trusted friends, family members or even a health professional.

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