Emotional health is crucial; it can lead to success in work, relationships, and even better physical health, according to the American Psychological Association. It turns out numbers may play a surprising role in helping us improve our emotional health. A new study from Duke University has linked brain training strategies, like practicing mental math, to preventing depression and anxiety.

“Our work provides the first direct evidence that the ability to regulate emotions like fear and anger reflects the brain’s ability to make numerical calculations in real time,” investigator Matthew Scult said, according to a Duke Today news release.

In the study, researchers analyzed brain activity of 186 undergraduates using a non-invasive brain scan. The team observed participants while they were doing math problems from memory, and found that these mind-bending puzzles stimulate a region of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which has already been linked to depression and anxiety. Participants also completed questionnaires and interviews assessing their mental health status and emotional coping strategies.

“We don’t know for sure why that is, but it fit into our hypothesis that the ability to do these more complex math problems might allow you to more readily learn how to think about complex emotional situations in different ways,” Scult said in the news release. “It is easy to get stuck in one way of thinking.”

More studies will have to be done to understand the link between engaging the brain area with math exercises and better emotional coping strategies.

"We hope, with these and future studies, that we can inform new strategies to help people regulate their emotions, and to prevent symptoms of anxiety and depression from developing in the first place," Scult said.

Source: Hariri A, Scult MA, Knodt AR, Swartz JR, Brigidi BD, et al. Thinking and Feeling: Individual Differences in Habitual Emotion Regulation and Stress-Related Mood are Associated with Prefrontal Executive Control. Clinical Psychological Science. 2016.

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