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New Apps Could Cure Anxiety, Depression

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Cyberchondria, along with Internet addiction, is one of a few diseases that would have been absolutely unimaginable a few years ago. WebMD, in an article that does a good job describing the syndrome -- except in its failure to acknowledge WebMD as a major cause -- warns readers that swollen glands, while a symptom of HIV, don’t necessarily mean HIV.

As far as that goes, a similar principle can be applied to pretty much any serious disease you read about online.

Now, it should go without saying that the Internet has had many positive effects on public health and that a greater awareness of symptoms for things like heart attack or stroke saves lives. However, successful online medial treatment still seems like something of a pipe dream.

Or at least it did. Yesterday, the New York Times reported on a new crop of iPhone (AAPL) and Android (GOOG) apps that, someday soon, may be able to help patients suffering from various types of anxiety or depression.

Several of the new apps focus on training the brain away from some of its bad habits. For example, in one, patients with social anxiety disorder look at pictures of faces, some mean, some neutral. The app then distracts them from focusing on the mean face, which theoretically and after more than a few plays, leads patients to ignore hostile faces in real life.

The approach, called cognitive bias modification (CBM) has been tried on all sorts of bad behavior. Another app tries to slow down heavy drinkers by having them push away digital booze.

Researchers have met with success in lab tests, but there are skeptics. Last year, a report out of the University of Pennsylvania found that the apps had a small effect on anxiety and no effect on depression. That said, many researchers believe that the apps do virtually nothing.

Still, there is one major upshot: Phone apps can reach millions of people beyond those who would traditionally attend therapy. For these people, even a small effect is better than nothing.

And anyways, Americans now expect their phones to do everything from organizing their schedules, to helping them save to, as of yesterday, working out the federal government’s budget. If there’s an app for that, maybe curing anxiety isn’t that hard.
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