Are Relaxation GIFs The Fast New Way To Calm Anxiety?

25/01/2016 3:49 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

It was only last year that this GIF went viral -- a simple visual that asks viewers to breathe to the rhythm of its movement in order to manage stress and promote relaxation.

With one in four Australians and millions more around the world living with an anxiety condition, it was hardly surprising it struck a chord. Not merely because it offered a visual how-to of a breathing technique (most clinicians demonstrate slow breathing and then give patients written descriptions) but it presented a glimmer of possibility for the future of some forms of therapy.

“There is certainly evidence for the use of slow breathing techniques in the management of anxiety symptoms and anxiety conditions -- however due to limited research it is hard to say whether such apps are in fact better than the current written handout or audio tapes used,” Dr Stephen Carbone, beyondblue’s Policy, Research and Evaluation Leader told The Huffington Post Australia.

As these new methods increase in popularity though, Carbone agrees it's intuitively unlikely they will produce worse results.

"I am sure they will help some people -- maybe many -- learn slow breathing techniques more effectively,” Carbone said.

Outside of this GIF, there are apps like ReachOut WorryTime, MindShift and Breathe2Relax that offer an on-the-go tool to aid in managing stress without having to physically visit a therapist nor read any lengthy instructions.

“Of course most people will still need to learn the other strategies, which are part of the overall suite of approaches used in cognitive behaviour therapy, which are central to anxiety management,” Carbone said.

One study from the Computers in Human Behaviour journal sought to evaluate mobile apps being a new tool for breathing training.

In an effort to offer a better understanding of how each technique differs, researchers looked at audio only versus visual apps.

Their findings showed some increased benefit with certain apps with researchers stating a visualisation method produced “better results both objectively (measured deepness of breath) and subjectively (users’ preferences and perceived effectiveness) than the more traditional audio-only design.”

They concluded their results indicated visualisation can contribute to the effectiveness of breathing training apps.

While these apps and visual aids are not a panacea for anxiety conditions nor will they stop an anxiety attack, they offer an alternative learning method that is far more accessible and convenient. After all, we are visual beings.

Carbone added the potential for some apps to help you track progress over time is also something we can look forward to exploring.

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