"Everyone worries, but worry that is out of control can hurt you. As you inhale, focus on expanding your stomach, as if you're inflating a balloon in your abdomen. Now focus on feeling neutral while you begin to think about the worry situation."
My breathing and heart rate slow. My mind is clear and I feel calm. But this isn't a therapist talking to me – it's one of the mobile apps in the IntelliCare suite.
IntelliCare is a series of 13 apps that helps users combat problems associated with depression and anxiety. Researchers at Northwestern's Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies (CBITs) developed the apps to treat symptoms like social isolation, sleep problems and obsessive thinking. The creators of IntelliCare used the Behavioral Intervention Technology (BIT) model, which emphasizes direct engagement in activities to improve symptoms over an educational approach, which is more common.
"IntelliCare is a little bit different," says Dr. Emily Lattie, a research assistant professor at CBIT who worked on IntelliCare. "We know that people tend to use their cellphones in pretty brief bursts, and therefore [they] lend themselves more to helping people do things and get stuff done. The IntelliCare apps were really designed to help people really actively practice different skills and strategies."
I have struggled with anxiety, specifically obsessive thinking, since I was a teenager, but options like therapy or self-help were either ineffective or inconvenient. When I first heard about IntelliCare in a news brief from Northwestern, it seemed perfect. But I wondered: Were the promises too good to be true? I decided to try it.
Unfortunately, IntelliCare is only available for Android phones, which I don't have (the IntelliCare team is currently working to adapt the apps to iOS, Lattie says). To get around this, I downloaded an emulator called BlueStacks that allowed me to use Android apps on my laptop. This process was tedious and sometimes BlueStacks crashed, but I found the apps didn't have to be used on an Android phone to be effective. While some features like phone alerts were lost, I didn't let
that stop me.
IntelliCare lets you pick and choose what apps you'd like to download. Depending on your selection, each app uses different strategies to cope with anxiety and depression, giving you a personal treatment plan. I chose apps that would help me with obsessive thinking and general anxiety. Here are the
four I recommend:
Advises users on how to cope with stressful situations that lead to "tangled thinking."
The app helps users identify stressful situations and relate them to a neutral situation. For example, if I get anxious around trains, the app associates that with how I feel when I am ordering coffee at a coffee shop. By associating stressful situations with neutral ones, the user is able to feel more relaxed.
Allows users to create "Coping Cards" that appear before stressful events.
Job interviews and class presentations always give me anxiety. This app allowed me to create coping cards to remind myself of ways to manage nervous energy. While the coping cards did not appear as a notification because I used my laptop, just being able to identify potentially stressful events by creating the cards helped me.
elps users with sleep problems and anxiety. Includes audio clips that instruct users on ways to breathe and relax muscles.
One of the best parts of this app is the breathing exercise, which is a video of a circle that expands and contracts. As the circle expands, you breathe in, and as it contracts, you breathe out. The app also includes other audio instructions to help users relax.
Allows users to identify their intrusive thoughts and how to cope with them.
By making my intrusive thoughts more tangible, I was able to see how unreasonable they were and how I could dispel them. The app helped me find a pattern, and whenever I had an intrusive thought, I could remember the way I dealt with the one before.