How we can retrain our anxious brains to think positive

17 May 2021 | 2 mins

Worried brains can be retrained to respond to everyday situations in a less threatening way to reduce anxiety levels, according to new research published by researchers from 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 a free 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.

Forrest Fellow Dr Julie Ji from UWA’s School of Psychological Science said the study showed that six sessions of the computerised online intervention program that repeatedly challenged their 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.”

Dr Julie 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.”

The team carried out the study with 807 highly anxious participants worldwide and randomly assigned them to three groups to receive 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,” Dr Ji said.

“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 online at mindtrails.virginia.edu.

Media references

Anna-lee Harry (UWA Media and PR Adviser), 08 6488 7975

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