By David Joel Miller.
Treating anxiety by Computer.
There is an Interesting new study on an experimental treatment for anxiety using an interactive computer program. The study, done in Israel and partially funded and conducted by U. S. researchers looked at treating teenagers for anxiety using a new computerized treatment. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health diagnoses in America and approximately 25% of teens are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at some point in their teenage years.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is commonly used to treat anxiety disorders and has been shown to be especially successful at reducing anxiety symptoms. About 70% of the time CBT reduces or eliminates anxiety symptoms in children and teens. Unfortunately, CBT treatment is not available to all the teens that need it. Without therapy, the only alternatives are medications, which may have strong and permanent side effects or letting the child suffer untreated. Most adults who suffer from anxiety disorders first experienced the symptoms as children or teens but the symptoms when untreated or undertreated.
Why factors might explain why CBT helps only 70% of those who go for therapy? How can we explain that a computer program worked to treat anxiety disorders?
People with anxiety disorders unconsciously pay more attention to threatening things than non-anxious people. Paying attention to threats and having some anxiety is protective when you are in a dangerous situation. The problem for chronic anxiety sufferers is that they pay too much attention to threats in situations that are not that threatening. People with anxiety disorders have difficulty moving their focus from a potential threat to another non-threatening item.
Now this problem of focusing on the negative is not limited to anxiety provoking things. The same principle has turned out to be effective for treating chronic pain and depression. People with chronic pain are extra attuned to their pain. They tend to focus on the pain to the exclusion of everything else.
When people with chronic pain are taught to focus on other things, pleasant positive things and they learn techniques to shift their focus from the pain to something positive they report the pain is reduced or eliminated. When you are having fun you forget your pain if only for a moment. This ability to shift focus also may explain why laughter and jokes are also an effective treatment for reducing symptoms of many common mental health problems.
Reducing symptoms is not the same as a permanent cure. But not having anxiety or pain even for a while is a great thing. And the more the symptoms are reduced the more likely you will be able to live with your condition. Recovery from many conditions does not mean completely eliminating the problem. Recovery may mean for some people an improvement in their quality of life.
We have known that thinking has a huge impact on feelings for a very long time. People with a negative bias, they think everything about themselves, the world and the future is bad, are more likely to be depressed.
So if you are anxious, depressed or in a lot of pain and your current treatment is not helping, consider working on changing the things you focus on. Working with a good counselor or therapist can help you learn to shift focus. So can a good self-help book. However, you learn the techniques you will need to practice shifting your focus from the negative problem-based view to the positive recovery and resiliency point of view. My thought is that the computer-based system helped people with excess anxiety because it included a lot of practice at changing their focus in a short period of time. Even without the computer program, the more you practice shifting your attention the better you can become about changing the way you look at things.
The full article on the computer based anxiety treatment experiment is available at the NIMH site.
Try this experiment, try shifting the things you pay attention to and see if your anxiety, pain or depression shrinks. If you do this experiment leave a comment on this blog and let the rest of us know how it worked out.
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