Auricular stimulation vs. expressive writing for exam anxiety in medical students – A randomized crossover investigation
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OBJECTIVE: Auricular stimulation (AS) is a promising method in the treatment of situational anxiety. Expressive writing (EW) is an established psychological method, which reduces test anxiety and improves exam results. The aim of this crossover trial was to compare AS with EW, and with the no intervention (NI) condition, for treatment of exam anxiety. METHODS: Healthy medical students underwent 3 comparable anatomy exams with an interval of one month, either performing EW, receiving AS or NI prior to the exam; the order of interventions was randomized. AS was applied using indwelling fixed needles bilaterally at the areas innervated mostly by the auricular branch of the vagal nerve on the day before the exam. Anxiety level, measured using State-Trait-Anxiety Inventory (STAI) before and after the interventions and immediately before exam, was the primary outcome. Quality of night sleep, blood pressure, heart rate and activity of salivary alpha-amylase (sAA) were analyzed across 3 conditions. RESULTS: All 37 included participants completed the study. Anxiety level (STAI) decreased immediately after AS in comparison with baseline (P = 0.02) and remained lower in comparison with that after EW and NI (P<0.01) on the day of exam. After EW and NI anxiety increased on the day of exam in comparison with baseline (P<0.01). Quality of sleep improved after AS in comparison with both control conditions (P<0.01). The activity of sAA decreased after EW and after AS (P<0.05) but not after NI condition. CONCLUSION: Auricular stimulation, but not expressive writing, reduced exam anxiety and improved quality of sleep in medical students. These changes might be due to reduced activity of the sympathetic nervous system.
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