Treatment for anxiety varies greatly based on the patient and the disorder, and new options are coming out regularly so that almost anyone can get treatment. These days, even your smart phone can help lower your anxiety. New research from the Association for Psychological Science suggests that playing a video game based in Attention Bias Modification Training (ABMT) for as little as 25 minutes can lessen anxiety in adults.

But claims like this have been made across the board for both anxiety improving applications (apps), memory improving apps, and many other health-related games. In a New York Times article on the subject, Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, director of the neurocognitive disorders program at Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, claimed “almost all the marketing claims made by all the companies go beyond the data." At the same time, the information about this anxiety smart phone app comes from researchers at Hunter College and The City University of New York. So, can anxiety be improved by a smart phone app or not?

Research Shows that ABMT Works

Using 78 trait-anxious participants (people with long-term, not situational, anxiety), this study created an app to mitigate the participants' anxieties towards public speaking. The app used ABMT, which teaches patients to ignore threatening stimulus (an angry face, for example) and move their attention to non-threatening stimulus (a neutral or happy face). Using this model, participants were instructed to follow the path of a burrowing character with their finger. ABMT-assigned participants always followed a neutral or happy face character while the placebo group followed both characters equally.

Participants played the game on an iTouch for 25 to 45 minutes and then made their speech. Of the two versions of the game, those who played the ABMT version made better speeches than those who played the placebo version, even with only 25 minutes of play time under their belt.

Unlike what Doraiswamy claims in an earlier article, this app does not go beyond the research because the research was built around this app. ABMT on a smart phone app has the potential to reduce anxiety in patients, even if they only are on the app for 25 minutes.

Meditation Vs. Brain Workouts

In another article that questions the effectiveness of brain workouts, writer Shoba Narayan concludes that after 10 minutes of meditation, she felt more peaceful than she did playing 20 minutes of smart phone apps like Luminosity, and many people would agree with her. Mediation has been the choice anxiety reducer for thousands of years and billions of people. But does research back up the anxiety reducing effects of mediation? To an extent, yes. On the other hand, research-based forms of anxiety reduction, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), have been proven to reduce anxiety more. For example, a study performed in 1978 comparing exercise, mediation, and rest's effects in reducing anxiety found all three to be equally effective in anxiety reduction. Another study conducted in 2007 investigated the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral group therapy (CBGT) versus meditation and found that, though mediation was effective in reducing anxiety, CBGT reduced it much more.

Though still a relatively new treatment for anxiety, ABMT is showing more promise in the scientific community than its centuries old competitor. In a 2010 study of its effectiveness, researchers concluded that ABMT “shows promise as a novel treatment for anxiety." Another study in 2013, which focused on children, had a similar conclusion. While ABMT needs more research, it is becoming a plausible treatment for anxiety, one which will rival CBT and other common therapies. Meditation has not been shown to help anxiety as much as its contemporary competitors, like ABMT.

So, throwing in the towel on anxiety-improving smart phone apps is not be the best option right now. With a little more research, ABMT might be the newest way to reduce your anxiety on the go.

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Iris Bräuninger, Ph.D.
Jeremy Schwartz, LCSW
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Jenni Rook, MT-BC, LCPC
Keith Whipple, MA, RDT


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