Computerized anxiety therapy found helpful in small trial

By | September 14, 2011

Computerized anxiety therapy found helpful in small trial

An emerging therapy known as cognitive bias modification, in which software helps subjects divert attention away from anxiety and interpret situations more calmly, helped improve anxiety symptoms in a pilot-scale randomized controlled trial.

small clinical trial suggests that cognitive bias modification (CBM), a potential anxiety therapy that is delivered entirely on a computer, may be about as effective as in-person therapy or drugs for treating social anxiety disorder. The Brown University-led research also found that participants believed the therapy to be credible and acceptable.

Participants in the pilot study, published in advance online in the journal Depression and Anxiety, improved their scores on a standardized measure of anxiety and on a public speaking task after completing two simple exercises twice a week for four weeks.

The hope for CBM is that it can provide a new option for anxiety sufferers who cannot find or pay for a qualified therapist, who are afraid to try cognitive behavior therapies where they directly confront their fears, or who can’t or don’t want to try medications. Still, the idea of computer-based therapy has been controversial, acknowledged Courtney Beard, the new study’s lead author and assistant professor (research) of psychiatry and human behavior in the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

“A lot of people are skeptical, particularly people like me who are clinicians and know how hard it is to help people with anxiety and how much effort and time it takes in therapy,†Beard said. “It just doesn’t seem possible that a computer program could produce similar effects. But I’m more of a scientist than a clinician so I want to see data.â€

Beard’s study is the first randomized clinical trial, albeit with a small sample size of 20 people who received the therapy and 12 placebo controls, to combine two techniques of CBM to treat social anxiety disorder: one that seeks to enhance subjects’ control over what they pay attention to and another that trains them to interpret situations less anxiously.

… The interpretation technique encourages anxiety sufferers to assign benign interpretations to social situations. Subjects were asked to say whether a word they saw on the screen was related to the sentence that followed. Those receiving the therapy, for instance, would see either “embarrassing†or “funny†before seeing the sentence “People laugh after something you said.†The subjects would be told they were correct if they chose the relatively benign word or incorrect if they chose the anxious interpretation. Placebo subjects, meanwhile, saw words that had nothing to do with the situation’s social nature. …

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