Illustration: Skyler Ash

I spent an afternoon testing apps for mental health

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By Skyler Ash

When I started having panic attacks about four years ago, I didn’t know what they were or understand what I was feeling. So I didn’t tell anybody.

The attacks got worse, so I finally went to see a counselor through my school. While our weekly sessions helped, I needed more. That’s when I started using apps to help me.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), only one-fifth of Canadian youth who need mental health services are able to access them.

This is where an app can be useful. If you have access to a phone or a computer, you can have access to help managing stress and anxiety.

I spent an afternoon testing some of the top apps for mental health, seeing what they do best and how they could help when I need them. Here’s what I found:

Pacifica: ♥♥♥/5

This app has a bit of everything, allowing you to do activities to help you relax and reflect on situations you’ve found stressful.

On the main page, you can rate your current mood. From there, you can rate your energy level and Pacifica will suggest activities you can do. Some of the options include meditation guided by a voice track, breathing, and guided therapeutic techniques such as visualization.

One feature tracks your habits, like sleep, eating, exercise and hobbies. This feature also allows you to set reminders to do these things.

I liked the habit tracker because it’s a nice visualization to show you where you’re meeting your mark and where you’re falling behind. When you enter how long you spent doing each activity, it fills up a heart icon at the top, which is a good indicator to let you see where you’re at for the day.

Another feature has you pick something that makes you stressed and reflect on it, considering how you felt about it in the past and how you feel about it now.

This app has a lot of options but wasn’t easy for me to navigate.

PanicShield: ♥♥♥/5

This app is designed to help you when you are having a panic attack or feel like you are on the verge of one. It works to guide you through cognitive-behavioural therapy. This is more for managing your panic or anxiety when not experiencing an attack.

When you open the app, you can read through the guide, which tells you about anxiety, panic and various treatments. Basically, it urges you to consider and identify what triggers your panic and your reactions to the triggers.

The app focuses on tackling the uncomfortable sensations experienced when having a panic attack, and it urges you to reenact them so your body realizes they are normal and gets used to them. It can be a bit triggering, so I recommend trying it out in a place where you feel comfortable. Don’t try to do too much at once. After finishing these activities, you are prompted to rate your reaction as well as record any notes you may have.

There is a section of the app devoted to breathing where you can customize how long you want the counter to run for then just sit and breath. This was helpful for me because when I’m feeling panicked, I have trouble controlling my breath. It helps me to have a guide to keep me from hyperventilating.

MindShift: ♥♥♥/5

This app is about self-reflection and offers guided activities like breathing and muscle exercises to help you deal with what you’re feeling.

To start, you can read about anxiety then rate how you feel. From there, you can select from a list of topics including “coping with test anxiety,” “managing worry” and “taking charge of panic.” The app pulls up a list of symptoms, feelings and thoughts. You select the ones you associate with the situation you chose.

Next, you can select activities to help manage those emotions and thoughts.

The questionnaire—where you check off the emotions, reactions and thoughts you have in response to a given situation—is the best part of the app. It gets you to reflect on how you function when faced with that situation, which is helpful since you might not know you feel a certain way until you see it on the list.

Calm: ♥♥♥♥/5

This app offers mostly guided meditation and breathing. It has a section that reads stories to help you sleep (fun note: you can have the teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off read you a chapter of The Wealth of Nations, which will definitely put you to sleep).

The app urges you do daily sessions of guided meditation, which last about 10 minutes. You can focus these sessions through filters such as resilience, gratitude and impermanence. The narrator will walk you through breathing exercises while giving you tips on how to deal with the filter you’ve selected. There’s also a section where a dial spins and it helps you count your breath.

I liked the basic guided meditation because it really forced me to sit still and breathe, which I often neglect, even though it makes me feel a lot better. The app lets you set reminders on your phone to complete your daily meditation.

SAM (Self-Help for Anxiety Management): ♥♥♥♥/5

This app is really user-driven, in that it doesn’t offer guided meditation, but gets you to work through things on your own, offering a bit of freedom in terms of the activities you can do. I’ve used it regularly for over a year and really enjoy it.

I always start by rating my anxiety via the sliding scale that tracks feelings such as worrying thoughts, unpleasant physical sensations and tension. These can be viewed in a graph that allows you to identify when your anxiety piques and possibly find patterns so you can work toward breaking them.

Some of the activities you can do with the app are calm breathing (a moving circle prompts you when to breathe in and out) and “picture peace” where you select an image then uncover it by swiping on your screen (good if you like things to do with your hands). There are also a number of muscle relaxation and grounding exercises.

I like the anxiety tracker best, because it really shows when you are experiencing a particularly hard day or week. By doing this, I’ve been able to identify what makes me the most anxious or upset. From there, I can select activities to do to help me deal with those uncomfortable feelings and reactions.

I like how easy it is to jump between activities and the tracker is really effective.

*All these apps are free and available on Android or iOS. Some require additional in-app purchases to access the full range of features. I only reviewed free features.

This is an extended version of the story that appeared in print on March 8, 2017.

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