Internet Study Reveals Exposure to Threat Cues Reduces Anxiety

A recent study focusing on attention bias modification (ABM) revealed a surprising result: participants with social anxiety (SAD) actually reduced their levels of fear when exposed to threatening cues. The research on SAD is saturated with information relating to attention bias. It has been established that people with SAD are biased to shift their attention to fearful and threatening cues, rather than to positive ones, when confronted with both. This shift then increases anxiety and fear, resulting in a self-perpetuating condition.

In an effort to minimize this automatic behavior, therapies have been designed that train individuals in ways to naturally shift to positive cues. Other forms of treatment include repeated exposure to positive cues in order to strengthen this bias. However, in a recent study conducted by Johanna Boettcher of the Department of Psychology at Stockholm University in Sweden, exposure to threatening cues, not positive ones, were more effective at reducing fear in people with SAD.

The study involved an Internet-based training program comprised of a threat cue bias, a positive cue bias, and a neutral cue. Boettcher enlisted 129 individuals with SAD and enrolled them in one of the three conditions. The participants completed the Internet modules every day for two weeks and were assessed before for levels of SAD and evidence of any biases, of which none were found.

After the 14-day experiment, Boettcher noticed that the participants in the positive cue and neutral cue conditions had no changes in bias. However, the participants in the threatening cue condition had significant reductions in negative bias. In other words, their natural tendency to shift their attention to negative and fear-inducing stimuli was reduced after they were exposed to the threatening cues.

These results were in direct contrast to other research showing an increase in anxiety after exposure to threat stimuli. Yet in this study, the results clearly show that prolonged and consistent exposure enabled the participants to become less sensitive to threats and more capable of shifting attention away from them when confronted with them.

Boettcher believes that although remote Internet training is still in its infancy, its success in this trial is promising. She added, “The direct comparison of remote and laboratory delivery of attention modification tasks within a randomised controlled trial would enhance our understanding of the potential of ABM in SAD.”

Boettcher, J., Leek, L., Matson, L., Holmes, E.A., Browning, M., et al. (2013). Internet-based attention bias modification for social anxiety: A randomised controlled comparison of training towards negative and training towards positive cues. PLoS ONE 8(9): e71760. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071760

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  • Gabby


    November 1st, 2013 at 3:48 AM

    How weird- I wouldn’t have guessed this at all, would have thought instead that threatening cues would have spurred more anxiety, not curbed it. Maybe stuff like this kind of makes us more immune to certain stressors?

  • shelton


    November 3rd, 2013 at 4:36 AM

    I think that this is one quick little snapshot about what is happening to society as a whole.
    We are exposed to so many things, some good and some bad, but it is like we have so much exposure that things don’t affect us in the same way that they once would have.
    I guess it is like we have become immune to certain feelings and emotions once you have seen something so many times and this kind of sounds like this is what has happened here.
    The test subjects were exposed to something so much that eventually you become numb to it and it doesn’t bother you in the way that it once could have.

  • Frannie


    November 5th, 2013 at 4:52 AM

    You become accustomed to something and it doesn’t seem to bother you as much as it does when you have very little exposure to it.

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