An anx­i­ety breaker

Worry Quest of­fers a fun way for stu­dents to deal with their anx­i­ety through the use of ad­ven­ture games.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - By AN­DREA K. McDANIELS

THE symp­toms usu­ally start when Matthew Bam­bach is go­ing through a ma­jor life change – his body tenses up, his head feels hot and his mind be­gins rac­ing.

“The world feels like it is spin­ning and even­tu­ally you just feel numb and lay down and curl up in a ball,” said the grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Mary­land In­sti­tute Col­lege of Art in Bal­ti­more, who has been see­ing ther­a­pists for anx­i­ety since 2012 and ex­pe­ri­enced its symp­toms most of his life.

Bam­bach wants to make it eas­ier for peo­ple like him­self to man­age the life- al­ter­ing symp­toms of anx­i­ety. He is in the process of cre­at­ing a mo­bile app, as part of his the­sis, to help peo­ple calm them­selves when they start to feel out of con­trol.

When de­vel­op­ment is com­plete, Worry Quest could be the lat­est among a num­ber of health apps that have hit the mar­ket in the last sev­eral years as doc­tors and hospi­tals use tech­nol­ogy to bet­ter care for pa­tients. Pa­tients are us­ing apps to track calo­ries and blood sugar, re­duce stress and sched­ule doc­tors’ ap­point­ments. LifeBridge Health in Bal­ti­more, the United States, just launched an app that lets pa­tients see what ap­point­ments doc­tors have avail­able. In the men­tal health realm, there are apps to track and give cop­ing mech­a­nisms for the symp­toms of post trau­matic stress dis­or­der, anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion.

Bam­bach’s Worry Quest app is aimed at col­lege stu­dents like him­self who may be grap­pling with the stress brought on by classes with heavy work­loads, stu­dent- loan debt and learn­ing to live in a new en­vi­ron­ment. While all stu­dents feel th­ese stres­sors, those with anx­i­ety is­sues may find them­selves so con­sumed by the stress that it keeps them from go­ing to classes or be­ing able to study.

In his own ex­pe­ri­ence, Bam­bach found that ther­apy was ex­pen­sive and that psy­chother­a­pists had long wait lists and many times didn’t take in­sur­ance. School coun­selling ser­vices were over­loaded.

The app is not in­tended as a re­place­ment for tra­di­tional ther­apy but could give stu­dents an­other way to cope, he said.

“I see it as way to fill in the gaps be­tween ap­point­ments,” Bam­bach said. “Or if some­one wants to try some­thing dif­fer­ent than sit­ting with a ther­a­pist – and with­out sink­ing hun­dreds of dol­lars into treat­ment.”

Bam­bach said Worry Quest of­fers a fun way for stu­dents to deal with their anx­i­ety through the use of ad­ven­ture games. They use the app to cre­ate avatars to rep­re­sent them­selves and mon­sters to rep­re­sent their anx­i­ety. They then take on the mon­ster in dif­fer­ent ways.

For in­stance, they may bat­tle the mon­ster, which in­volves more cathar­tic, tac­tile ac­tiv­i­ties and use of rea­son to bal­ance out neg­a­tive thoughts. Or they can prank the mon­ster, which in­volves hu­mil­i­at­ing it in goofy ways. Hu­mour shifts the per­son’s per­spec­tive, and laugh­ter helps re­lease ten­sion, Bam­bach said. The user can also choose to soothe the mon­ster, calm­ing it down through more med­i­ta­tive, mind­ful ac­tiv­i­ties.

But the use of apps is still new, and some say more stud­ies are needed on the re­li­a­bil­ity of health apps. Not all apps are cre­ated equal.

Car­di­ol­o­gists at Johns Hop­kins found that a pop­u­lar smart­phone app mar­keted to mea­sure blood pres­sure missed high mea­sure­ments in eight out of 10 pa­tients. The app was sup­posed to work by hav­ing a pa­tient place a cell­phone on their chest and a fin­ger over the built- in cam­era lens. The In­stant Blood Pres­sure app is no longer avail­able for pur­chase but was down­loaded more than 100,000 times and is still func­tional on phones, the re­searchers said.

“We think there is def­i­nitely a role for smart­phone tech­nol­ogy in health­care, but be­cause of the sig­nif­i­cant risk of harm to users who get in­ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion, the re­sults of our study speak to the need for sci­en­tific val­i­da­tion and regulation of th­ese apps be­fore they reach con­sumers,” said Dr Ti­mothy B. Plante, a fel­low in the Divi­sion of Gen­eral In­ter­nal Medicine at the Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity School of Medicine.

Belinda Bor­relli, di­rec­tor of be­havioural sci­ence re­search at Bos­ton Univer­sity’s Henry M. Gold­man School of Den­tal Medicine, re­cently helped to edit a spe­cial is­sue of the Jour­nal Health Psy­chol­ogy that ex­am­ined how health apps and other mo­bile plat­forms are be­ing used to help pa­tients with psy­cho­log­i­cal health is­sues.

As med­i­cal costs con­tinue to sky­rocket, Bor­relli said apps and other mo­bile tech­nol­ogy can of­fer an af­ford­able way to pre­vent, as­sess, track and treat ill­nesses. But the apps should be based on sound sci­en­tific prin­ci­ple and de­signed with in­put from peo­ple who would use them. De­sign­ers of an app should also seek in­sight from med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als such as psy­chi­a­trists or psy­chol­o­gists, she said.

“If one of those three ar­eas are left out, it is likely that the app will not be ef­fec­tive or could even be harm­ful,” Bor­relli said.

Bam­bach is work­ing with two pro­fes­sion­als in the men­tal health field. One of them, Dika Seltzer, a li­censed clin­i­cal pro­fes­sional coun­sel­lor and psy­cho­log­i­cal as­sis­tant, has been re­view­ing the app through the build­ing process to make sure it is clin­i­cally ac­cu­rate.

Seltzer said the app could be a good tool to help pa­tients calm their day- to- day anx­i­ety. “It would be one more thing in the arse­nal of tools that we use as ther­a­pists,” she said.

Bor­relli said that apps can also help pa­tients track and man­age their own treat­ment be­tween vis­its and help doc­tors fol­low that treat­ment more closely.

“Apps should not be thought of as a re­place­ment for treat­ment – rather a way to sup­port and main­tain treat­ment goals,” Bor­relli said.

A draw­back to health apps is that peo­ple have to be mo­ti­vated to use them. Those most at risk for dis­ease might not have that mo­ti­va­tion, she said.

Bam­bach says he has suf­fered from anx­i­ety symp­toms for a good chunk of his life. He was so anx­ious and ob­sessed with per­fec­tion as a child that he would have headaches. He suf­fered with the symp­toms for so long it seemed nor­mal.

But af­ter grad­u­a­tion he moved to Canada for a new job and be­came so over­whelmed with liv­ing in a new place and fig­ur­ing out what he wanted to do with his life that he suf­fered from break­downs so bad he could not work. He found a ther­a­pist who taught him cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy, which helped him be­come more aware of neg­a­tive thoughts and over­re­ac­tions so he could re­act to them dif­fer­ently.

Af­ter mov­ing to Bal­ti­more, Bam­bach tried yoga, med­i­ta­tion, sleep and jog­ging to deal with his anx­i­ety, to no avail. Psy­chol­o­gists put him on wait lists or didn’t take his in­sur­ance. He went to one provider who told him it would cost US$ 800 for a con­sul­ta­tion.

“When I got ac­cepted to MICA, it was a big de­ci­sion,” Bam­bach said. “I started to get that anx­i­ety again. I started to get those self- doubts and those thoughts popped up again and I was hav­ing break­downs. “It got painful, and some days I didn’t want to leave the house. You just want to turn it off, but it is not that easy. Peo­ple say just calm down and don’t think about it. But that is not how it works.”

Look­ing for a way to help him­self and oth­ers, Bam­bach in­ter­viewed friends about their own anx­i­eties. He de­cided on de­vel­op­ing an app be­cause so many young peo­ple carry smart­phones. He ex­plored how anx­i­ety was de­picted in art and no­ticed it was of­ten drawn as a mon­ster that lin­gered above peo­ple’s heads.

His app is still in the pro­to­type stages, and he hopes to find a de­vel­oper and bring it to mar­ket. But he knows that can be ex­pen­sive and take time. One at­tempt at crowd­fund­ing gar­nered just a por­tion of the money he had hoped to raise.

But he is con­fi­dent he can make it hap­pen.

“Anx­i­ety can be dif­fi­cult to deal with, and this will hope­fully make it eas­ier for other stu­dents,” he said.

— Pho­tos: TNS

Bam­bach re­ceived in­put from his peers about their anx­i­eties by post­ing in­struc­tions for them to ‘ draw your de­mon’.

Bam­bach is cre­at­ing an app to help peo­ple with anx­i­ety.

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