New smartphone app helps patients fight anxiety disorder symptoms

Harvard University researchers have created a simple new app that could dramatically reduce the symptoms of patients with anxiety disorders, according to a recent New York Times article.

The still-to-be-named app, was studied in a 338-patient trial, and used a psychological approach called "cognitive bias modification." The idea is to help anxiety disorder sufferers short-circuit anxious or negative thought cycles when in stressful situations. For example, patients with social anxiety--fear brought on by being in crowds or public places--often focus on any angry-looking or hostile faces in the crowd, and simply don't see people with positive expressions, the Times explains.

The smartphone app, through a simple, repetitive exercise, re-conditions the brain to automatically look away from, and not fixate on, hostile expressions. This can interrupt the cascade of negative thoughts and rising anxiety that normally would have been triggered by the patient's skewed perception of a situation.

The Harvard study finds that those patients' reports of anxiety dropped by 22 points during the smartphone trial. Other testing is finding similar results. For example, psychologists at San Diego State University found that about half of participants in a trial--practicing the exercises online for about 30 minutes twice per week for four to six weeks--reduced their symptoms enough to no longer qualify for an anxiety disorder diagnosis, the Times reports.

Not everyone is excited about the smartphone-turned-psychologist idea. Andrew Gerber, a psychiatrist at Columbia University worries about the influx of smartphone-based treatment. "We are built as human beings to figure out our place in the world, to construct a narrative in the context of a relationship that gives meaning to our lives," Gerber tells the Times. "I would be wary of treatments that don't allow for that."

Psychological intervention apps appear to be gaining momentum anyway, though. Mobilyze, for instance, uses sensors, locators, and patient diaries to identify when a depressed patient is under stress--and to send messages to improve mood or coping ability. The Department of Veterans Affairs, too, has a stable of post-traumatic-stress and depression apps, debuted over the past year or so, to help soldiers track and manage psychological symptoms following deployment.

To learn more:
- read the New York Times article
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