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Anxiety Apps: New Fad or Worth the Download?

April 16, 2014

photo3By Amy M. Collins, editor

Today there’s an app for everything. There are find-your-keys apps, map-the-stars apps, even an app to help you hone your stapling skills. And apps exist to help patients with every kind of health care need, from managing diabetes to prenatal care. Usually, in an attempt to keep my smartphone use to a minimum, I avoid jumping on the trendy app bandwagon. But recently I came across an article touting an app to reduce anxiety. As a long-term, mostly recovered sufferer of chronic anxiety and panic, this article piqued my interest (and my skepticism).

While certainly not the first app developed to reduce stress, this particular app—called Personal Zen—has been tested by researchers who found that participants with relatively high scores on an anxiety survey showed less nervous behavior after using the app than those in a placebo group, according to a study published in Clinical Psychological Science. Developed by psychologist Tracy Dennis, a professor at Hunter College in New York City (and, it should probably be noted, one of the study’s lead authors), the app incorporates the concept of cognitive bias modification to get the user to shift their focus from a threatening stimulus to a nonthreatening one. More studies are needed to see if such an app would have the same success in those with clinically diagnosed anxiety.

And there are literally hundreds of other apps catering to those with anxiety (click here for a Healthline article on the 17 “best” antianxiety apps; and here are more from Google Play).

Is it really that easy? If only antianxiety apps were available when I was first diagnosed over a decade ago. Back in that particular Stone Age, I had limited choices: antianxiety meds, talk therapy, alternative methods, or a combination of these options. I chose therapy and alternative methods and embarked on a 10-year quest to control the disorder instead of vice versa. I read books, employed relaxation techniques, joined groups, and challenged myself to face situations that caused anxiety. Employing these tactics eventually brought me to a place where I could live relatively anxiety free without medication.

A gap in care. I’m one of more than 2 million adults in this country with anxiety. But even though so many of us suffer from this condition, less than 37% of anxiety sufferers are actually receiving treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. So although it would be ideal if everyone could seek professional treatment, many factors prevent it, not the least of which are the cost of therapy, lack of insurance, and lingering stigma surrounding mental health conditions. Enter self-help methods.

Worth a try? I remember, when my anxiety was at its worst, thinking “I will do anything to make this stop.” That attitude opened the door to alternative relaxation techniques, combined with talk therapy—and I found success with this. Perhaps, then, these apps are like any other alternative method. Why not try one? There’s not much to lose, except time and the cost of the app. Maybe they can provide temporary relief, and open the door for patients to seek further treatment. Or just be another tool in one’s arsenal. Still, no matter how successful these apps may be, my feeling is that it might still be best to probe deeper and discover what, if anything, is causing or aggravating the anxiety—if possible by working with a professional to develop an individual treatment plan.

Like it or not, these new technologies are here to stay and patients are sure to be trying them out and maybe even asking nurses and other clinicians about them.

Would you recommend such an app as a treatment or an adjunct to treatment for anxiety? Is there an app that’s helped you or your patients relax or deal with anxiety—or with any other health condition?

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4 comments

  1. Thank you for replying, Ms Collins!

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  2. @Jana: I actually did try the Personal Zen app, and several others. I’m not sure how accurate my assessment is, since when I tried them I was not experiencing anxiety. With PZ, you have to use your finger to trace a path away from a sprite with a mean face toward one with a friendly face. It all happens so quickly—I assume there must be a subliminal component reinforcing positive feelings; however, I felt a little frustration while playing. I think with many of these anxiety apps one helpful thing is that they provide a distraction that doesn’t require great concentration to help you shift your focus away from your anxiety – for example, trying to refocus my attention has always helped me, but reading a book would be too difficult when I am in that state. Playing a game, however, is easier to do and perhaps works better. Some of the apps include strategies for managing your anxiety, and one included a calming audio to talk one down from panic. The nice thing I’ve seen is most of these apps are free, and many had high user rating scores and positive comments, so hopefully they are working for people.—AC

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  3. Ms Collins,
    Very interesting. Did you try the app, and would you share your results?
    Jana

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  4. I’m not sure what apps are out there to help ease anxiety. I only know meditation apps like “smiling mind”.

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