A new therapy may offer relief for people with debilitating anxiety and stress-related disorders.

The treatment makes use of a concept called safety signals, a symbol or a sound that is never associated with negative memories. With practice, calling the safety signal to mind can reduce anxiety symptoms and provide relief, reported researchers from Yale University and Weill Cornell Medicine.

“A safety signal could be a musical piece, a person, or even an item like a stuffed animal that represents the absence of threat,” said Paola Odriozola, from Yale, who co-authored human and animals studies of the concept.

In the human studies, participants were conditioned to associate different shapes with either a threatening outcome or a non-threatening outcome. Afterwards, when exposed to the threatening shape, introducing the non-threatening shape successfully suppressed their fear, the researchers reported.

Subsequent brain imaging showed that the safety signals activated a different neural network than exposure therapy, a long-established treatment for anxiety conditions. In exposure therapy, anxiety sufferers repeatedly face the source of their fear, gradually reducing their response over time. The new findings suggest that safety signaling may work in tandem with current therapies, said Odriozola.

As many as one in three people have disabling fears of life events or situations that pose no real danger, the researchers report.