hands holding a phoneTreatment for anxiety may be as simple as playing a smartphone app, according to a new study. Researchers Tracy Dennis of Hunter College and Laura O’Toole of The City University of New York used an app to help bridge the gap between people who need treatment for anxiety and the people who actually receive it. The results showed that using the app resulted in less nervous behavior. The research could make treatment more accessible for people with psychiatric disorders.

Many people with anxiety are reluctant to investigate treatment options because they may be too time-consuming, expensive, or difficult to access. To address the need for more accessible anxiety care, the researchers tested out an app based on a new form of cognitive treatment called attention-bias modification training (ABMT). ABMT trains people to ignore threatening stimuli and focus on positive stimuli instead. Seventy-five people who scored relatively high on an anxiety assessment participated in the study. They used the app for 25 or 45 minutes, although some were given a placebo. After using the app, the participants gave a talk to the researchers—a stressful task—which was recorded on video.

The participants who used the app exhibited less nervous behavior during their talks, even for those who had only a short, 25-minute ‘dose’ of the app. Those who used the app also reported less negative feelings after their talks than the placebo group did.

The next stage for the research team will be to determine if the app is effective when used in 10-minute intervals.

These findings suggest that game-like interventions could offer real benefits for people with anxiety. The study may inspire effective treatments through unconventional means for other types of disorders.

“Gamifying psychological interventions successfully could revolutionize how we treat mental illness and how we view our own mental health. Our hope is to develop highly accessible and engaging evidence-based mobile intervention strategies … that can be ‘self-curated’ by the individual as personal tools to promote mental wellness,” commented Tracy Dennis of Hunter College, co-author of the study.

This research is published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

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