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Worried brains can reduce anxiety levels by learning to respond to everyday situations in a less fearful way, according to new research published by The University of Western Australia and the University of Virginia.

The study, published in Behaviour Research and Therapy, reported on the initial feasibility and effectiveness of an online intervention program for anxiety and found it was successful at reducing anxiety in highly anxious individuals.

The intervention program was based on research showing that anxious individuals tended to interpret upcoming situations in a threatening manner, and that modifying this interpretation style could reduce anxiety.

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Quick results

Forrest Fellow Dr Julie Ji from UWA’s School of Psychological Science said the study showed that six sessions of a free, computerised online intervention program that repeatedly challenged threatening interpretations and replaced them with less catastrophic ones could successfully modify anxious peoples’ habit of expecting the worst, and this helped to reduce anxiety over time.

‘This research is particularly important right now because most of the world has been operating under highly stressful and anxiety-provoking conditions for almost a year-and-a-half now,’ said Dr Ji.

‘Our study provides key evidence that it is possible to provide freely accessible, digital interventions that can help us change the thinking patterns that keep our minds and bodies in states of anxious arousal.’

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807 participants

The team carried out the study with 807 highly anxious participants worldwide, who were randomly assigned to three groups, receiving either positive training interpretations, balanced positive and negative interpretations, or no training control.

Dr Ji said the study found the positive training was most effective at reducing negative interpretations and increasing positive interpretations, and reducing anxiety across the training period.

‘Although it is good to see increased mental health funding in this year’s Budget, that funding is for frontline mental health services and represents only the very tip of the iceberg in terms of addressing Australian’s mental health care needs,’ said Dr Ji.

‘For the majority of people suffering from anxiety, having free online interventions that can help them cope better with everyday life and be accessible from their own home can make a big difference.’

Funded by the US National Institute of Mental Health, the training program, developed at the University of Virginia, is part of a larger research project and is freely available to try online at mindtrails.virginia.edu.