Can computers cure anxiety?

Some might think that a computer could never replace a flesh-and-blood therapist when it comes to helping a person who struggles with anxiety problems. While the role of a human therapist will never become obsolete a new study has reached the slightly controversial conclusion that computer based treatments for anxiety could be helpful when utilized as part of a larger therapeutic plan.

In an age where the computer has infiltrated into almost every corner of human society, the results of a trial were released this week which suggested that computers can now help relieve social anxiety. This survey has not only received mixed reviews, many have found the idea of a computer replacing a human therapist, and ultimately the human relationship, controversial and ultimately unacceptable. Those who see the benefits of the project tend to believe that it needs to be taken in context of the whole therapeutic journey.

How the computer therapy application works

It needs to be added that in terms of studies, this was quite a small trial and researchers agree that a true reflection of the results can not be accepted totally, until a further larger study has taken place. The new therapy application is called cognitive bias modification (CBM). This is a technique that helps individuals relieve anxiety and view new situations in a calm manner. The application places the person taking the tests in situations where they may normally envisage anxiety. Two of the test areas are interpretation and attention.  The interpretation technique encourages anxiety sufferers to assign benign interpretations to social situations. The "attention" technique trains subjects to ignore a worrying social cue and instead to complete a task.

First results look encouraging

Participants in the study 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. After the therapy intervention, subjects self-reported their anxiety level dropped by 25 percent using a standard anxiety scale. Researchers also asked for feedback from the participants as to whether they felt the therapy was credible and acceptable. On both counts the answer was positive.

Future Use

Although the results are promising and worth pursuing the researchers agree it is early days and there will need to be larger more complex trials. It is also agreed that fundamentally it can never replace the power of the human therapy session. It is seen more of a way of first line intervention that could lead to further therapy if there is a need. Also as therapy can be so expensive outside of the NHS, and waiting lists are often long it is seen as possibly being an inexpensive therapy for those in urgent need.

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