Melbourne-based clinical psychologist Mark Grant has developed a mobile app for people with stress anxiety that aims to help reduce levels of anxiety whenever and wherever they occur.
The Anxiety Release app is based on non-verbal bilateral stimulation, an element of Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), a therapy used for people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Bilateral stimulation involves focusing on alternating visual and/or auditory stimuli, and when paired with focused attention, produces decreased physical and mental tension. This process seems to have not only a calming effect on anxious people but also triggers new learning pathways in the brain.
The experience of feeling better also often leads to long-term changes in the individual’s perception of their ability to control their anxiety, Mr Grant said.
Bilateral stimulation is a promising alternative to anxiolytics and common methods for managing prolonged anxiety, like mediation or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
“What it is activating is the sensory part of your brain and it is deactivating the thinking part of your brain, which is the opposite of what CBT does,” Mr Grant said.
“When you are anxious about giving that public speech, your brain is flooded with negative thoughts and your heart is pumping. When you activate the app you are confronted with alternating white lights, set against a background of brain imagery. At the same time your brain is being stimulated by alternating tones, in time to the lights.
“What is happening is your brain is being flooded with sensory input but it is neutral sensory input. Your brain is like a bucket and you can only fit so much in at a time, so the thoughts and feelings about your public speech get shoved out because your brain is more wired to pay attention to sensory input than it is to internal input.”
The app is not suitable for people with epilepsy, acquired brain injury or severe or complex forms of PTSD, but mainly at those people with prolonged anxiety who dislike taking medication or who find meditation or CBT tiresome and impractical.
“We know that over 50 per cent of sufferers never seek help,” Mr Grant said. “Of those that do seek treatment, up to 50 per cent drop out prematurely. It’s clear that anxiety sufferers need a tool to enable them to deal effectively with stress and anxiety where and when it is taking place.”
Mr Grant said bilateral stimulation is also different to other methods like distraction therapy. “This actually creates a relaxation response, which distraction doesn't do – it just tones it down while you are doing it. That relaxation response seems to then become married to the memory of the situation, so after you have used it, you think back on that memory and go 'big deal'.
“It is a much more efficient way than trying to meditate or do positive thinking. These are good, well-tested methods, but for many people they are a long, hard road.”
The app consists of five audio sessions, beginning with a brain training session which introduces users to the process of changing their feelings though brain stimulation.
This is followed by three anxiety-management sessions consisting of a blend of guided focused attention and bilateral stimulation. The fifth and final session is a “safe place” exercise to help the large proportion of anxiety sufferers who have safety issues.
Mr Grant is also looking at whether bilateral stimulation and EMDR can be helpful in managing pain, as it seems to change affect. “It changes not only people's emotions and thoughts but also the feeling in the body,” he said.
Future releases of the app will allow users to consent to sending information back to Mr Grant for research purposes. “I want to collect some statistical data on people's uses and responses to it and create some research to support the process,” he said.
Mr Grant created all of the content himself and worked with Australian app developer Smarterapps to design and launch the app. It is currently available for iOS users from the iTunes store and costs $4.99.
Mr Grant is currently working on an Android version. Interested Android users can register their email address at www.anxietyrelease.com.au to be notified when it is available, probably in the next two to three months, Mr Grant said.
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