Dr. B's Blog

On avatars and anxiety

I've long been fascinated with the idea of using computers to deliver treatments. I've always been described as a gearhound and if you were to see my office, you'd understand why. While it may seem counter-intuitive that a psychologist would like to see computers doing more of my job, I think actual people will continue to have a place in treatment.

The New York Times reports on using computers to aid in anxiety treatment:

The anxiety rose in his throat — What if I’m not making sense? What if I’m asked questions I can’t answer? — but subsided as his therapist, observing in the background, reminded him that the audience’s reaction might have nothing to do with him. And if a question stumped him, he could just say so: no one knows everything.

There's something unique about anxiety disorders when they are found in isolation, as they are in studies such as these. Specifically, the typical response and thought patterns found are visceral and fairly predictable. These thoughts tend to be less rational and thought-out than our more mature thoughts might be, making them relatively1 easy to refute. Similarly, the typical physiological response is pretty clear to the person suffering the anxiety, again making it an easier target to address, perhaps using mindfulness techniques to enhance your interoceptive awareness.

That said, there are a number of situations in which computer-aided psychotherapy for anxiety might not be effective. Even in the above linked article, there was a psychologist coach present for the role-playing event. The bottom-line is that we are still many years away from being able to get away from actual trained clinicians for the treatment of many of our mental disorders. And don't you think it'll still nice to be able to talk to a real person from time to time, anyway?

  1. I don't think that they are easy by any real stretch of the imagination. As far as psychotherapy goes, though, restructuring the cognitive distortions associated with a non-comorbid anxiety disorder is relatively easy. ↩