WASHINGTON — Anxiety can be debilitating — the inner turmoil, rumination, stress and dread over something unlikely to happen will affect millions of people, yet research shows it can be reduced by playing a smartphone game for 25 minutes.
“There’s a real crisis in mental health right now,” says Tracy Dennis, professor of psychology at Hunter College, of The City University of New York. “Ninety million of us in our lifetimes in the United States will become clinically anxious.”
Yet only half of those with anxiety will receive treatment, Dennis says, citing treatment’s expense, burden, and difficulty in getting to people most in need.
Seeking ways of reducing barriers to treatment, Dennis and co-researcher Laura O’Toole developed a mobile application that incorporates theories of an emerging cognitive treatment for anxiety, called attention-bias modification training, or ABMT.
“We’ve gamified what’s called congitive bias modification,” says Dennis.
“Even if you’re not clinically anxious, if you’re feeling heightened anxiety and stress you tend to have a bias to perceive the world in a certain way,” says Dennis. “And that bias is to pay too much attention to the negative and too little attention to the positive.”
Treatment attempts to change the way a person’s brain reacts.
“What cognitive bias modification does is help retrain this pattern, or habit of paying attention. It retrains your brain to focus more on the positive,” Dennis says.
Happy face, angry face
In the laboratory setting, a patient would be presented with a series of faces on a computer screen.
“You’d see angry faces and happy faces, and these faces would compete for your attention,” says Dennis.
After the faces disappear, a patient would quickly see an arrow pointing left or right, and be asked to indicate the direction the arrow was pointing.
In a lab setting, “You would need to do several hundred repetitions, and it would be boring and not engaging,” says Dennis.
Using the free Apple app, called Personal Zen, “You see little spritely figures in a field of grass, and they’re randomly appearing across the field, and you’re swiping and following the path.”
Meanwhile, relaxing music plays, while users can track progress with points.
“The experience is meant to be not terribly challenging, but challenging enough and relaxing,” says Dennis. “It’s retraining you to pay attention to the happy sprite.”
In the study of 75 participants, after playing the game for either 25 or 45 minutes, the participants were asked to give a short speech to the researchers while being videotaped — a stressful experience for most people.
According to the researchers, participants who played the game showed less nervous behavior and speech during their talk and reported less-negative feelings afterward than those in a placebo group.
“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,” Dennis says.
It’s no Flappy Bird
Dennis says the app was developed for research.
“It’s a real beta version,” says Dennis. “It’s no Flappy Bird.”
Dennis says mental health professionals and researchers “need to start thinking outside the box of science as usual, and treatment as usual.”
Using smartphones as a way of practicing positive thinking seems to have pros and cons, says Dennis.
“Some people will argue that mobile technology will make you more stressed out (by) the hyper-connectivity and the burden that can place on us, but mobile technology is not going away,” says Dennis.
Dennis says that if mobile tools can help people promote their own mental wellness, “I think that’s the direction we in the field have a responsibility to go in.”