An emerging treatment for anxiety is something called attention-bias modification training, which involves having people focus on something non-threatening, like a happy face, and ignore a threatening stimulus, like an angry face, in order to decrease feelings of anxiety.
Now, a new study suggests that turning this treatment strategy into a smartphone game might work to decrease anxiety in people with higher-than-normal anxiety levels.
The study, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, included about 75 people who all scored high on a test of anxiety. The participants played a game on an iPod Touch for either 25 or 45 minutes (the "short" training condition and the "long" training condition) before being asked to do a stressful video-taped speaking task.
Some of the participants played a version of the game that was meant to evoke the attention-bias modification training, while other participants played a placebo version of the game. In both versions, participants had to quickly and accurately trace burrowing paths that appeared after two characters on the screen, where one character looked angry and the other had a neutral/mildly positive expression. However, in the attention-bias modification training version of the game, the burrowing trail of grass only appeared after the character with the neutral/mildly positive expression, while in the placebo version of the game, the burrowing trail appeared after both of the characters.
Researchers found that the participants randomly assigned to the attention-bias modification training version of the game experienced less anxiety in the video-taped speaking task afterward.
And "even the 'short dosage' of the app -- about 25 minutes -- had potent effects on anxiety and stress measured in the lab," study researcher Tracy Dennis, of Hunter College, said in a statement. "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.'"