Anxiety and depression can have devastating effects on people’s lives. In some cases, the mental disorders lead to isolation, poverty and poor physical health, things that often cascade to future generations.

A new program at the University of Virginia is aiming to shift the rigid, negative thoughts that come with mental disorders.

Take, for example, the prospect of asking your boss for a raise. The notion would make many people feel a bit nervous, but not prevent them from asking. For others, the notion brings nothing but bad thoughts, perhaps spawning fears of the boss screaming obscenities and firing them on the spot. This mind-tangle is so daunting it leads many people to inertia.

The new, online program being developed at UVA can train people to imagine different, positive outcomes to lots of different scenarios. Unlike other online applications that might seem similar, this program will go through continuous study and be refined as needed.

Bethany Teachman is a licensed clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at UVA, as well as the director of MindTrails, where users can find her new online interventions. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“It is four sessions long and each session is about 15 to 20 minutes,” said Bethany Teachman, a licensed clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at UVA. “People will see a variety of brief stories that are missing an ending. We encourage them to fill in those endings in different ways across the different sessions.”

In essence, Teachman said the program, which is anonymous, is designed to teach users to develop a new style of thinking. “We want to give people practice in learning how to think about those situations in new ways, because we think that people who are prone to anxiety, depression and negative mood tend to have a pattern of thinking that things will turn out badly, and that can have really serious, negative consequences.”

People can access the free program here using a computer, smart phone or tablet. The ability to participate where and when users want is deliberate. “We really want people to incorporate it into their lives and say, ‘Oh, this is a time where I really need to work on that negative habit that I have in my thinking style and see if I can make a shift. Let me grab 15 minutes and see if I can turn that around a little bit,’” Teachman said.

The program’s public launch continues a study in which 201 college students at UVA who took the online training reported relatively more positive expectancies about the future, an increased belief that one can effectively achieve one’s goals and the belief that a person can change and grow, compared to a neutral control group. That work was done in collaboration with Teachman’s graduate students, Nauder Namaky and Jeff Glenn.

One of those 201 participants was Eileen Hernon, a rising fourth-year student majoring in psychology and elementary education. She took the four-session program two years ago as part of a psychology course requirement. At first skeptical, Hernon said after participating that she didn’t feel like the future was out of her control any more. In fact, the work inspired her to study more about positive psychology, a recent subfield that looks at what helps people experience more happiness.