Smartphone app can reduce levels of anxiety

New research suggests that playing a science-based app on a smartphone for 25 minutes can reduce levels of anxiety in people with higher-than-normal anxiety levels.

The study tested an app that had been developedbased on an emerging cognitive approach to treating anxiety known as attention-bias modification training (ABMT).The core principle of ABMT is to train patients to ignore a perceived threat and to turn their attention instead to a non-threatening stimulus.

The participants in the study were individuals who had previously scored highly on an anxiety survey. They were asked to play the specially developed “game” designed on ABMT principles for either 25 or 45 minutes, and to then give a short speech while being recorded on video. This would represent a stressful experience.

At the same time a comparison group of high anxiety participants played a game not designed on ABMT principles, and also gave speeches that were recorded.

The researchers then assessed the amount of nervous behaviour on the videos, and the participants reported their feelings about their performance. The results showed that the participants who played the ABTM-based app showed less nervous behaviour and reported less negative feelings about their speech than those who played the placebo game.

The lead author Dr. Tracy Dennis, a clinical psychologist at The City University of New York, says given the huge gap between need and ease of access to mental health services, it is essential to look for alternative ways of delivering treatment in ways that are more affordable, engaging and accessible.

"Millions of people suffering from psychological distress fail to seek or receive mental health services," says Dr. Dennis, "A key factor here is that many evidence-based treatments are burdensome - time consuming, expensive, difficult to access, and perceived as stigmatizing."

Dr. Dennis says that even the shorter, 25-minute version of the ABMT app had "potent effects" on anxiety and stress measured in the lab. "This is good news in terms of the potential to translate these technologies into mobile app format because use of apps tends to be brief and 'on the go,'" she added.

Further investigation is now under way to find out if even shorter versions of the game will also be of measurable benefit to people with high anxiety. So far, the app has only been tested on people who score high on anxiety surveys and it has not as yet been tested on people with clinically diagnosed anxiety. Nevertheless, the researchers believe their findings present a compelling case to develop ABMT apps.

It may even be possible to develop apps for other mental health conditions, as Dr. Dennis explains: "Our hope is to develop highly accessible and engaging evidence-based mobile intervention strategies that can be used in conjunction with traditional therapy or that can be 'self- curated' by the individual as personal tools to promote mental wellness."

The study is published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

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