New research published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science suggests playing a science-based app on a smartphone for 25 minutes can reduce levels of anxiety in people who are stressed.
The authors suggest turning scientifically supported interventions into game apps offers a new way to attain measurable mental health and behavioral benefits for people who have high levels of anxiety.
Lead author Dr. Tracy Dennis, a clinical psychologist of Hunter College, 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 - hence the idea of a smartphone app.
"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."
Study tested app based on attention-bias modification training
The new app is a "game" based on a new 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. For example, to ignore an angry face and focus instead on a happy or neutral face.
The approach has been shown to reduce worry and stress in people with high anxiety.
The app tested in the study is a game where the player follows two characters around the screen and has to trace their paths as quickly and accurately as possible.
The researchers recruited 78 participants who had scored high on an anxiety survey and invited them to play the game for either 25 or 45 minutes, and then give a short speech while being recorded on video - a stressful experience for them to undergo.
Meanwhile, another comparison group of high anxiety participants played a dummy game not designed on ABMT principles, and also gave speeches that were recorded.
The researchers then assessed the amount of nervous behavior on the videos, and the participants reported their feelings about their performance.
Playing the ABTM-based app led to reduced anxiety symptoms during stressful event
The results showed that the participants who played the ABTM-based app showed less nervous behavior and reported less negative feelings about their speech than those who played the placebo game.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," and explains:
"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 says further investigation is already under way to find out if even shorter versions of the game - similar in length to others played on smartphones - will also be of measurable benefit to people with high anxiety, for example:
"We're examining whether use of the app in brief 10-minute sessions over the course of a month successfully reduces stress and promotes positive birth outcomes in moderately anxious pregnant women."
The hope is to develop smartphone-based personal tools for mental health
So far, the app has only been tested on people who score high on anxiety surveys - it has not been tested on people with clinically diagnosed anxiety. Nevertheless, the researchers believe their findings furnish a compelling case to develop ABMT apps as "cognitive vaccines" to prevent anxiety and stress.
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 app (iOS only) is under the name of "Personal Zen." Dr. Dennis went on to say:
"It's a beta version and we are planning a major redesign, but our clinical tests support efficacy of the app in this format for stress and anxiety reduction. We have several ongoing studies, but please know that this is not yet a validated clinical treatment for anxiety.
However, early indications suggest that using it around 10 minutes a day several times a week is a good "dosage." You can also use it right before a stressful event to take stress down a notch."
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The National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities supported the study.
Medical News Today recently learned how smartphones might be used to diagnose diseases in real time. Using nanotechnology that will only require a smartphone and a $20 lens attachment to read results, a team from the US is developing a fast, cheap disease diagnostic system that they hope one day could be used in the field, such as to help first responders at an industrial accident quickly assess any danger.