Researchers unveil app for anxiety

People living with anxiety – conditions ranging from extreme shyness to obsessions and compulsions – can now turn to a mobile health app for help. Mental health professionals at the Mayo Clinic and University of North Carolina developed the app with recognition that an estimated 40 million Americans currently live with anxiety.

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Officials at Mayo Clinic said the Anxiety Coach app was created as a self-help tool.

“The reason we created [the app] is because anxiety disorders [may be] the most common mental health problem faced by both kids and adults, and only approximately 30 percent of people receive treatment," explained Stephen Whiteside, director of the Pediatric Anxiety Disorders Program at Mayo Clinic, psychiatrist and co-developer of the application. “And even though that’s a small number, even a smaller number receive the most effective treatment, which is exposure-based cognitive behavior therapy.”

Whiteside noted that the app itself consists of three parts. The first part includes educational material regarding anxiety and various treatments; the second part, dubbed "check-up," gives individuals a chance to measure their own anxiety symptoms by answering a variety of questions and then receive feedback; and the third part is considered the “main meat” of the project, allowing users to select from a list what they’re afraid of, then participate in some 500 activities that, according to officials, help reduce these worries. Some of the many activities focus on improving social and separation anxiety, and common worries, such as the fear of public speaking or heights.

The strategies used in the app are based on a strategy many experts say is one of the most effective psychotherapies for fears and worries. In cognitive behavioral therapy, people increase their confidence by gradually confronting situations they have avoided out of fear. Officials said research has demonstrated that cognitive behavioral therapy is more effective for anxiety than other approaches that rely on teaching people to relax.

“While we don’t think this app is a replacement for therapy, we hope that it would help bring effective principles for helping people with their fears and worries to a broader number of people who are suffering from anxiety,” said Whiteside.

"The app is based on a long history of clinical research of what is helpful in conquering anxiety," Whiteside commented. "The core of that treatment is helping people in a supportive environment gradually face their fears, so they can learn throughout their own experience that what they’re afraid of is unlikely to happen, and they can gradually build their confidence.”

A frequently quoted study, sponsored by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, has pegged the annual healthcare costs for anxiety disorders at $42.3 billion, or nearly one-third of the nation's mental health expenditures.

Whiteside worked with Jonathan Abramowitz, an adult anxiety disorders specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to develop the application, which is currently available for Apple iPhones, iPads and the iPod Touch.

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