laptop with image of brain on screen

Anxiety and alcohol use: Can we Re-Train Your Brain?

16 April 2021
Evaluating a new online program
Researchers at the Matilda Centre are running a pilot trial to examine whether an online brain training program can successfully re-train spontaneous and sometimes subconscious mental habits that contribute to the development and maintenance of anxiety and alcohol use disorders.

Social anxiety and alcohol use disorders commonly co-occur, resulting in a more severe clinical presentation and poorer response to treatment. Most treatments that currently exist for social anxiety and alcohol use problems seek to change unhealthy mental habits at a conscious or explicit level (e.g. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). However, many people indicate that their anxiety and alcohol consumption is not always a conscious choice. Supporting this, there is accumulating evidence that anxiety and drinking are affected by processes operating at a subconscious, implicit level. These biases can be triggered very quickly, so people aren’t even fully aware they’re being influenced by them. This can make drinking and anxiety very difficult to control.

Thankfully, scientific research has shown that these subconscious mental habits can be improved via “brain training” programs (known as Approach Bias Modification [ApBM] and Interpretation Bias Modification [IBM]). As with other habits, such as typing, driving or cycling, repeated exercise (or in this case repetitive completion of a brain training task) allows an individual to develop new, healthy mental habits. ApBM and IBM are complementary and effective treatment approaches that have been shown to enhance standard treatments such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Despite their encouraging findings for anxiety or alcohol use individually, the acceptability, feasibility and clinical utility of combining ApBM and IBM programs to optimise standard treatments among comorbid samples has not been explored. It is also unknown whether provision of a comorbidity focused ApBM+IBM training program at an earlier age (and earlier in the course of their disorder) represents a promising opportunity to intervene before problems become chronic and entrenched in adulthood.

Study aims

This study aims to investigate the feasibility, acceptability, and preliminary efficacy of the 'Re-Train Your Brain' intervention – an adjunct internet-delivered ApBM+IBM program – among a clinical sample of young adults with problematic alcohol use and social anxiety.


Participants aged 18-30 years who are currently receiving psychological treatment for anxiety or alcohol use are invited to participate in the trial. Eligible participants will be randomly allocated to receive either:

  1. the online Re-Train Your Brain program (delivered in one of two formats) in addition to treatment as usual, or
  2. treatment as usual only.

Participants will be asked to complete 3 surveys and cognitive assessments over 3-months, and will be reimbursed with a $30 gift voucher at each of the three time points.

What makes this study unique?

The study will be the first to evaluate whether an ApBM+IBM program is acceptable to treatment-seeking young people and whether it is feasible to deliver it online, in settings where it will ultimately be used (e.g. at home). By using a computer task that directly modifies unconscious tendencies and mental habits, we hope the Re-Train Your Brain program will give young people the mental strength and skills to manage anxiety and make it easier for young people to resist the temptation to drink alcohol, especially if they are using alcohol to manage anxiety. The findings will broaden our understanding of the types of programs that young people will engage with, and whether there is preliminary evidence of it being an efficacious treatment option for this comorbidity.

To learn more about the study and what it involves, please visit Re-Train Your Brain.

Researchers from the University of Sydney are creating the Re-Train Your Brain program, with expertise provided by national and international collaborators from Monash University (Melbourne), the University of New South Wales (Sydney), the University of Amsterdam (The Netherlands), Utrecht University (The Netherlands) and the University of Virginia (USA). Meet the research team.

For further information about the Re-Train Your Brain project, please email Dr Katrina Prior (Chief Investigator) at

Know someone who would benefit from joining this study?

Re-Train Your Brain
If you’re a clinician you can recommend and refer Re-Train Your Brain today!
Learn more

Know someone who would benefit from joining this study?

Re-Train Your Brain
If you’re a clinician you can recommend and refer Re-Train Your Brain today!
Learn more

Katrina Prior

Research Fellow
  • Level 6 Jane Foss Russell Building G02