New mHealth app set to tackle anxiety disorders

A new mobile health application developed by mental health professionals has set its sights on the estimated 40 million people in the U.S. currently living with anxiety. 

Officials say the Anxiety Coach app was created as a self-help tool to help people reduce a variety of fears and worries, ranging from extreme shyness to obsessions and compulsions.

“The reason we created [the app] is because anxiety disorders are one of the most, if not the most common mental health problem faced by both kids and adults, and only approximately 30 percent of people receive treatment," says Stephen Whiteside, director of the Pediatric Anxiety Disorders Program at Mayo Clinic, psychiatrist and co-developer of the application, to Healthcare IT News. “And even though that’s a small number, even a smaller number receive the most effective treatment, which is exposure-based cognitive behavior therapy.”

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Whiteside explains 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, officials say, 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 cognitive behavior therapy, 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. According to officials, research has demonstrated that cognitive behavioral therapy is more effective for anxiety than other approaches that rely on teaching people to relax.

Although officials understand the app’s limitations when compared to cognitive behavior therapy itself, they still anticipate that it will provide additional strategies for some 18 percent of the country currently suffering from anxiety.

“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,” says Whiteside.

[See also: As healthcare apps boom, privacy best practices come to the fore.]

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