Attention-retraining therapy has been found to benefit teens with anxiety disorders, according to the first randomized, controlled trial focused on this age group.
All previous research centered on attention-retraining therapy has included only adults. In the new study, 42 teens with severe anxiety who were staying in a residential treatment program received cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) 25 hours per week. Patients averaged 15-16 years of age and stayed an average of 60-62 days in the residential program.
Symptom scores significantly improved in a control group that got CBT plus a computerized placebo, but scores improved even more in patients randomized to CBT plus computerized attention-retraining therapy.
Most of the participants had a primary diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – this included 17 patients in the control group and 13 in the combination group.
This was a complex patient group with high levels of comorbidity — having more than one disorder or problem — and problems participating in everyday activities. Primary diagnoses included OCD, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and anxiety disorder not otherwise specified.
Other disorders patients had included major depression in many patients, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or eating disorders. Characteristics did not differ significantly between groups.
The attention-retraining group was asked to do the computerized therapy every weekday during “school” time, and patients ended up doing it about 3.5 days/week on average, he said.
The computer exercises included a screen that presented a neutral face as well as a face showing disgust. This was then followed by a screen with no faces but a “probe” where one of the faces had been (such as the letter E indicating that the patient should respond with a left-click of the mouse or the letter F indicating a right click for response).
In the attention-retraining group, the probe always came after the neutral face. In the control group, the probe appeared behind each face an equal amount of time.
“We weren’t targeting OCD, but keep in mind that there is an area of disgust that you see in OCD. Maybe this was hitting that target as well,” said researcher Bradley C. Riemann, Ph.D.
The attention retraining research is based on previous studies showing that anxious individuals consistently focus their attention where they perceive potential threats.
Source: Rogers Memorial Hospital