Whether you tend to be an upbeat optimist who sees the light, or a “realistic” pessimist who just wants to keep their expectations low to prevent disappointment, the way you look at the world may have a lot to do with the size of your orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), a part of the brain linked to anxiety and behavioral regulation.

A new study published in Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience has found that the thicker your OFC, the less likely you are to be anxious. A larger OFC is also associated with a more optimistic attitude, giving all those anxiety balls hope that optimism may perhaps be a shield of sorts against the condition. Anxiety is, after all, a difficult mental illness that prevents people from enjoying their daily lives.

“Optimism has been investigated in social psychology for years,” Yifan Hu, a graduate student who worked on the study, said in the press release. “But somehow only recently did we start to look at functional and structural associations of this trait in the brain. We wanted to know: If we are consistently optimistic about life, would that leave a mark in the brain?”

Positive Thoughts: Leaving A Mark On The Brain

There are plenty of studies that examine the role of a shrinking OFC in anxiety; one 2013 study examined the brains of people who survived the Great East Japan Earthquake, finding that shrinking gray matter in the OFC was associated with a greater risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

But the researchers of the latest study wanted to focus on how both optimism and a bigger OFC had a protective role. “We wanted to go in the opposite direction,” Sanda Dolcos, a researcher at the University of Illinois who authored the study, said in the press release. “If there can be shrinkage of the orbitofrontal cortex and that shrinkage is associated with anxiety disorders, what does it mean in healthy populations that have larger OFCs? Could that have a protective role?”

In the study, the researchers examined 61 healthy young adults, taking MRIs of their brain structure — particularly the OFC. They measured the amount of gray matter in each brain region, comparing it to the total volume of their brain (gray matter controls muscles, hearing, seeing, memory, emotions, speech, and decision-making). Afterward, the participants completed surveys that measured their optimism, anxiety, and depression — as well as their general mood (also referred to as positive or negative affect), whether that was enthusiastic and interested, or irritable and upset.

The researchers’ results were fascinating: A thicker OFC was linked to higher levels of optimism and lower levels of anxiety. The researchers believe that optimism helped protect people from anxiety.

“You can say, ‘OK, there is a relationship between the orbitofrontal cortex and anxiety,” Dolcos said in the press release. “What do I do to reduce anxiety? And our model is saying, this is working partially through optimism. So optimism is one of the factors that can be targeted.”

But is there a way to change the size of your OFC and train yourself to become more optimistic and less anxious? More research will need to be completed before any conclusions can be made, but the good thing is that our brains are plastic — able to change and develop over time, and renew circuits that in turn influence our behavior. Improved brain plasticity has been achieved through learning new things, exercising the mind, and exercising the body — as well as reducing stress.

There are many reasons to take initiative in reducing anxiety through optimism. One recent study found that optimism was linked to a healthier heart; positive thoughts and humor in a negative situation ended up improving quality of life, while negativity lessened quality of life even more. In addition to channeling positive energy into situations, try a few other anxiety-mitigating tips — like taking a walk in nature, reminiscing about good times in your life, and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables. You might find that you have a bit of an upbeat optimist in yourself that you never thought you had.

Source: Dolcos S, Hu Y, Iordan A, Moore M, Dolcos F. Optimism and the Brain: Trait Optimism Mediates the Protective Role of the Orbitofrontal Cortex Gray Matter Volume against Anxiety. Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2015.