Massage therapy, meditation, aromatherapy, exercise—these are some of the stress-reducing therapies consumers are turning to in increasing numbers.

Now we cam add computerized anxiety therapy to that list. Say what?

A small clinical trial suggests that cognitive bias modification (CBM), a potential anxiety therapy that is delivered entirely on a computer, may be about as effective as in-person therapy or drugs for treating social anxiety disorder. The Brown University-led research also found that participants believed the therapy to be credible and acceptable.

Participants in the pilot study, published online in the journal Depression and Anxiety, improved their scores on a standardized measure of anxiety and on a public speaking task after completing two simple exercises twice a week for four weeks, according to a Brown University press release.

“A lot of people are skeptical, particularly people like me who are clinicians and know how hard it is to help people with anxiety and how much effort and time it takes in therapy,” said Courtney Beard, the study’s lead author and assistant professor (research) of psychiatry and human behavior in the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. “It just doesn’t seem possible that a computer program could produce similar effects. But I’m more of a scientist than a clinician so I want to see data.”

Beard’s study is the first randomized clinical trial, albeit with a small sample size of 20 people who received the therapy and 12 placebo controls, to combine two techniques of CBM to treat social anxiety disorder: one that seeks to enhance subjects’ control over what they pay attention to and another that trains them to interpret situations less anxiously.

The subjects self-reported their anxiety level five times during the four-week period by answering standard questions on the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale, the press release noted. The average score of those receiving the therapy dropped from more than 80 to about 60 (lower is better), while those in the placebo group barely edged down at all. Blinded, trained evaluators judged the public speaking task, a five-minute impromptu speech, at the beginning and the end of the study.

The scores showed a significant improvement in those who received the therapy, while the speaking scores of the placebo group got worse.

The hope for CBM is that it can provide a new option for anxiety sufferers who cannot find or pay for a qualified therapist, who are afraid to try cognitive behavior therapies where they directly confront their fears, or who can’t or don’t want to try medications.

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