Promising Therapy for Anxiety and Dementia, In An App

For years, health experts have told people that constant connectivity to email and Internet via a smartphone can cause overwhelm and lead to anxiety. Now, researchers are finding ways that smartphone technology can help people heal from mental disorders including anxiety and prevent others, such as dementia.

Research published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science reveals that a new cognitive therapy-based app holds promise to reduce anxiety. Meanwhile, existing technology, such as Lumosity, allows people to exercise their minds online and through a smartphone app to ward off dementia.

Playing games on your smart phone provides more than amusement, it can also reduce anxiety and improve memory.

Benefits of the anxiety app, called Personal Zen, include the ability to forgo expensive, time-consuming, and often intrusive forms of traditional therapy. The free app costs less than therapy, fits in your pocket, and accompanies you throughout your day.

Personal Zen is currently available only on the iOS platform. It’s in beta stage, which means researchers are still working on it. When you first open the app, you hear calming, Zen-like music and see a field of green grass. Friendly and angry cartoon faces start appearing in the field, and a trail of grass appears after the friendly face dips from view. Trace the trail with your finger, and the field clears to start the process again. The idea is to focus on the friendly face, because that’s where the grass will appear, even if you look at the angry face first.

The technology is based on an emerging type of therapy called attention-bias modification training. The theory is that stressed out people are more likely to pay attention to the very things that stress them out—work overload, annoying family members—while people better able to manage stress develop the capacity to ignore or overlook those triggers. By playing the game, you learn to ignore angry faces.

Current research focuses on the benefits of 25 to 45 minute sessions of playtime, but scientists are looking to see if shorter periods, say ten minutes, could provide the same benefit.  Researchers also aren’t sure if the technology could help people with full-blown anxiety disorders. They consider it more of a “cognitive vaccine” against stress and tension.

Emerging app-based therapy holds promise to help people with disorders beyond anxiety, including addiction and depression. 

Meanwhile, Lumosity exercises cognitive abilities, helping people ward off dementia. The game is part of Lumosity’s Human Cognition Project, and so people who play are also helping researchers further cognitive research. The program, developed by researchers, involves a series of games that strengthen memory, attention, and ability to respond quickly to changing circumstances. The idea is that by exercising your cognitive skills, you strengthen them.

Do you use apps to help you manage anxiety or improve brain functioning?

Image by John Karakatsanis via Flickr