Anxiety is problem that affects a huge portion of the population, with some studies showing that it will affect as many as 25% of the population at some point in their lives. Because of its high prevalence and the severe distress it causes sufferers, developing new and effective treatments for anxiety is always a high priority for psychological research.
Attention Bias Modification
One new treatment which has been developed in recent years is called Attention Bias Modification, or ABM. Those suffering from anxiety show an attentional bias towards threats in their environment. This means that their attention is naturally drawn to things which they find threatening or frightening. This tendency to notice things which worry you and pay more attention to them ends up increasing and maintaining your anxiety levels- the more you pay attention to things which you find threatening, the more anxious you become.
ABM works by training patients to pay less attention to threats. It is most often carried out using a simple computer interface where patients look at a blank screen on which different images appear, some of which are threatening (eg an angry face) and some of which are not (eg a neutral face). After the face appears a word appears in the same position as one of the faces. Patients have to respond as soon as they see the word.
Those with anxiety will respond more quickly to the words which appear under the threatening faces, as their attention is already drawn to the threat. During ABM the cue word will always appear under the non-threatening face, thereby slowly training the person to stop paying attention to the threatening face.
Improving AMB and Anxiety Treatment
Despite its promising potential, results show that AMB has only modest effects on managing and treating anxiety. This may be because it only addresses one aspect of attentional bias- the automatic or “bottom up” process by which we are automatically drawn to threatening stimuli in our environment. However, there is also a more conscious or “top down” process by which people with anxiety focus their attention on threats. This top down process is based on the fearful thoughts, beliefs and motivations people with anxiety hold. These motivations and thought processes are not currently addressed by ABM techniques.
Modifying ABM to focus on more conscious, goal-driven tasks would make it more effective in training people with anxiety to consciously direct their attention away from things they find threatening and towards things they find positive or comforting. This would help reduce the attention people pay to threats around them and reduce the anxiety they feel as a result.
Implications for Future Anxiety Treatment
If a more effective variant of ABM is identified it could have important implications in our understanding of how to overcome anxiety. An effective AMB treatment can be carried out anywhere as all it needs is a computer screen, making it a cheap and easy to produce method for treating anxiety.