A patient's level of anxiety can be measured more objectively with the help of a new tool that scientists have developed.
Dan Johnson of Washington and Lee University has created the Attention Control Capacity for Emotion (ACCE) task, which will be tested in a clinical setting at Manchester University in England in the coming year.
"Psychologists are heavily reliant on self-reporting to diagnose a patient's level of anxiety. This is a big problem.
"Although self-reporting is important, patients can distort, exaggerate or minimize their condition. And there is no way to tell if they are doing this. The ACCE task can also be used to track the effectiveness of therapies," said Johnson.
For the past five years, Johnson has tested almost 400 participants from the general population across four studies in creating the ACCE task.
In the first phase of the research, 80 students recruited from W and L and neighbouring Virginia Military Institute looked at a series of images on a computer.
The images in question were either depicting emotional facial expressions (an angry face, for instance) or neutral shapes.
The students were first asked to focus on then emotional expressions and were then told to switch their attention between those images and the neutral shapes.
Their reaction time was based on how quickly the subjects clicked a mouse button to indicate that their attention had shifted from the first image to the second. Johnson can use a comparison of these reaction times to help determine an individual's current level of anxiety or depression.
"At this point I'm using the normal population to develop this instrument. There is tremendous variation in peoples' ability to keep their emotions in check, and this instrument can help us capture people who are effective at doing so and those who aren't so effective," he said.
The findings were reported in the journal Cognition and Emotion.