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College People: Bethany Teachman

Bringing Calm to the Anxious

by Lorenzo Perez

Whenever Bethany Teachman mentions that she is a licensed clinical psychologist, someone has a heartbreaking story to share. Whether at the bus stop, at the airport, or at the hairdresser, somebody tells her about a relative or friend who has suffered from an anxiety disorder for years without getting help, or who has failed to make progress due to decades of improper counseling.

A professor of clinical psychology in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, and director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology, Teachman investigates cognitive processes that contribute to the development of anxiety disorders and other forms of psychopathology.

“The part that kills me is that people are suffering unnecessarily,” Teachman said. “There’s some data that suggests people with social anxiety, the most common anxiety disorder, will suffer for 15 to 20 years before they seek therapy or professional help of some kind. That’s devastating when you think about how many years are spent suffering. We actually have quite good treatments for anxiety, but people aren’t getting them.”

One of the tools developed by Teachman’s team at UVA is MindTrails, a free online tool to help people change their anxious thinking. Accessible on laptops, tablets, and mobile phones, MindTrails offers five to eight approximately 20-minute sessions designed to help users modify cognitive biases that could, for example, cause them to feel that they are being harshly judged by others when, in fact, they are not. The program’s goal is to break that mental loop and help people see things in a more objective and flexible way.

 “We know that when people are anxious they have a tendency to assume the worst and think that things are going to turn out really badly and that they won’t be able to cope with the situation.”

Bethany Teachman in her officePhoto CreditDan Addison

The project is conducting studies with mobile phone-based assessments that allow people to monitor their moods with an app. Down the road, the project members hope such phone assessments could help identify when a person needs an intervention, so that they can be offered technology-based solutions over the phone when they need it most.

About 100 people, students, and local community members who report some symptoms of social anxiety, are participating in an ongoing study.

“What we want people to learn is that anxiety is uncomfortable, but it’s not dangerous. When you have false alarms going off they don’t feel good, but they don’t actually signal that something’s dangerous,” Teachman said. “If you learn slowly but surely at your own pace to tolerate some of that anxiety and remain in situations that are scary initially, the anxiety will in fact go down.”

Teachman’s research team includes UVA faculty in computer science, engineering, and psychology, as well as a professional computer programmer, two postdoctoral researchers, eight graduate students, and as many as 20 undergraduate research assistants.

Psychology graduate student Alexandra Werntz (Psychology ’11) has been working with Teachman since she took on an undergraduate research position in her lab as a first-year student.

“I’ve known her 10 years, and Bethany has been probably one of the most important influences in my life,” Werntz said. “Her commitment to providing people with the best care possible is particularly striking and wonderful to see.”

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