Digital Therapy Reduces Social Anxiety, Study Finds

Jared Kaltwasser
MARCH 29, 2018
cbt,web-based therapy,overcome social anxiety,hca news
Image has been cropped and resized. Courtesy of Porsche Brosseau, Flickr.

Internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy appears to be an effective treatment for patients with social anxiety disorder, according to new study findings.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia wanted to see if a web-based program called Overcome Social Anxiety could successfully reduce social anxiety in patients. They constructed a study of 65 college-aged students (72% of whom were women), in which 30 enrollees were given access to Overcome Social Anxiety, and the other 35 were told they were placed in a control group.

The participating patients underwent initial anxiety assessments and then took follow-up assessments at 4 weeks. The study originally started with 101 patients, but one dropped out and 35 did not return for follow-up check-ins. Those in the treatment group received reminders to use the program, along with the opportunity to earn a small boost in their grades (up to 3%) in 2 psychology courses, depending on how far they got in the Overcome Social Anxiety modules.

The treatment cohort had lower scores on both the Social Interaction Anxiety scale and the Fear of Negative Evaluation scale. Furthermore, 80% of the patients in the treatment group said the Overcome Social Anxiety program was “good” or “excellent.”

Hugh McCall, a graduate student and the study’s first author, told Healthcare Analytics News it may be that patients approved of the web-based system because it allowed them to access treatment at home, in a setting devoid of anxiety-inducing social situations.

“Please note, however, that like other cognitive behavioral therapy treatments for social anxiety, Overcome Social Anxiety does involve direct human interaction,” he said.

One module, for instance, asks patients to conduct behavioral experiments by actively seeking out social situations.

One reason the web-based program could be important is that patients with social anxiety tend to seek treatment at relatively low rates. While an estimated 13% of people have experienced social anxiety at some point in their lives, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that 36% of patients with social anxiety disorder experience symptoms for at least 10 years before seeking treatment.

McCall said that could be due to a number of factors.

“Research also suggests that the symptoms of social anxiety present a barrier to its treatment,” McCall said. “For example, a person with social anxiety may worry that if they were to start seeing a therapist, people they know might find out and judge or stigmatize them for it.”

However, he said, it’s not necessarily an unwillingness or lack of interest to seek help. In some cases it could be more practical: an inability to afford a full course of in-person therapy or geographic distance from a therapist.

“Perhaps the most intriguing thing about web-based mental health interventions is their potential to reach those with limited access to traditional treatment options,” he said, noting that the digital program can be accessed anytime and from anywhere.

The study is titled, “Evaluating a Web-Based Social Anxiety Intervention Among University Students: Randomized Controlled Trial.” It was published this month in the Journal of Internet Medical Research.

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