A recent study by Harvard psychologists found that a smart phone application could reduce anxiety for people suffering from social anxiety disorder and generalized anxiety.
The study was conducted by Psychology Professor Richard J. McNally and his graduate student, Philip M. Enock, in collaboration with Stefan G. Hofmann, director of the Social Anxiety Program at Boston University.
The smart phone application uses a method known as “attentional bias modification” to train people to ignore negative stimuli that were causing them unneeded stress in social situations. Subjects were simultaneously presented with two faces, one neutral and one hostile. Participants were instructed to press a letter that appeared on the screen after the faces were displayed.
For participants in the test group, this letter always appeared in the position where the neutral face had been. By redirecting the subject’s attention from the hostile face to the neutral face with the letter, the researchers hoped to train subjects to look away from social cues that would cause anxiety for a person with social anxiety disorder or generalized anxiety.
Participants used this application three times a day, and each session lasted about two minutes. Periodically, they filled out a survey asking them about the level of anxiety they felt in everyday life.
A placebo group used a smart phone application in which the letter was equally likely to appear in place of the neutral face or the hostile face, and a no-treatment group filled out periodic surveys about their level of stress but did not use an application.
The results showed significant alleviation of daily anxiety for those in the test group as well as in the placebo treatment group, and no change for those in the no-treatment group. While encouraged by the participants’ progress, researchers were also confused by the equal outcomes from the active and placebo groups.
Enock said the placebo group may have improved because their choice to use the anxiety-treatment application in itself was empowering. Participants in both groups may also simply have been “expecting some improvement to come along.”
McNally also said that improvements could be because of the “positive aura” surrounding high-tech treatment or because using the application was a method to maintain attention to tasks beyond the game.
The findings are promising but should be viewed with “guarded optimism,” said McNally.
“Right now we really want to make sure we can replicate these effects [and] make them more potent,” he added.
Likewise, Hofmann said that modified studies with larger sample sizes are needed to “examine if attention bias modification has a reliable effect on people’s subjective experience.”
After refinement, said McNally, this type of therapy could provide an alternative to traditional cognitive behavioral therapy for people who do not have access to a trained therapist or who cannot afford professional counseling.
Enock added that the smart phone format is especially well adapted to delivering treatment to a large population—not only for those who are on medication or in therapy, but also those who are currently doing nothing to manage their anxiety.