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Therapeutic processes in digital interventions for anxiety: A systematic review and meta-analytic structural equation modeling of randomized controlled trials
Clinical Psychology Review  (IF12.792),  Pub Date : 2021-09-13, DOI: 10.1016/j.cpr.2021.102084
Matthias Domhardt, Hannah Nowak, Sophie Engler, Amit Baumel, Simon Grund, Axel Mayer, Yannik Terhorst, Harald Baumeister

While the efficacy of Internet- and mobile-based interventions (IMIs) for treating anxiety disorders is well established, there is no comprehensive overview about the underlying therapeutic processes so far. Thus, this systematic review and meta-analysis evaluated research on mediators and mechanisms of change in IMIs for adult anxiety disorders (PROSPERO: CRD42020185545). A systematic literature search was performed in five databases (i.e., CENTRAL, Embase, MEDLINE, PsycINFO and ClinicalTrials.gov). Two reviewers independently screened studies for inclusion, assessed the risk of bias and adherence to quality criteria for process research. Overall, 26 studies (N = 6042) investigating 64 mediators were included. Samples consisted predominantly of participants with clinically relevant symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and severe health anxiety, as well as of participants with non-clinically relevant anxiety symptoms. The largest group of examined mediators (45%) were cognitive variables, evincing also the second highest proportion of significance (19/29); followed in numbers by skills (examined: 22%; significant: 10/14) and a wide range of other (19%; 7/12), emotional/affective (11%; 2/7) and behavioral mediators (3%; 1/2). Meta-analytical synthesis of mediators, limited by a small number of eligible studies, was conducted by deploying a two-stage structural equation modeling approach, resulting in a significant indirect effect for negative thinking (k = 3 studies) and non-significant indirect effects for combined cognitive variables, both in clinical (k = 5) and non-clinical samples (k = 3). The findings of this review might further the understanding on presumed change mechanisms in IMIs for anxiety, informing intervention development and the concurrent optimization of outcomes. Furthermore, by reviewing eligible mediation studies, we discuss methodological implications and recommendations for future process research, striving for causally robust findings. Future studies should investigate a broader range of variables as potential mediators, as well as to develop and apply original (digital) process and engagement measures to gather qualitative and high-resolution data on therapeutic processes.