We're often told to switch off our screens to improve mindfulness and connect better with others, but could using technology actually improve our mental health? Emily Dufton suffers from anxiety and trialled some digital programs to see if they delivered.
My anxiety has become impossible to ignore in recent years, with the unwelcome and uncomfortable feelings creeping up on me increasingly frequently.
Sadly, I’m not alone: Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. On average, one in four people - one in three women and one in five men - will experience anxiety at some stage in their life.
It’s no wonder when the stimulation levels we’re exposed to during 24 hours in 2018 are the same as someone 200 years ago would have experienced in their lifetime, according to meditation and mindfulness teacher Tim Brown. This puts some serious strain on our nervous systems, which revert to fight or flight mode to cope with the overload of stimuli.
I’ve come up with many strategies to help manage my anxiety effectively, and find being in nature, exercising, cooking and spending time with my loved ones really helps. But if I’m lying in bed at 1am stuck in an endless cycle of worry, it’s not practical to start making chutney from scratch.
After noticing the rise in meditation apps and digital e-mental health, I wondered whether these technologies could offer me an alternative.
Everyone I know, myself included, seems to have an unhealthy preoccupation with their smartphone, so it seemed counter-intuitive technology could actually help me feel centred, or improve my mental wellbeing, sleep, motivation and commitment to nutrition and exercise. But many mental health experts advocate technology as a powerful tool to help people manage their anxiety in a convenient, cost-effective and accessible way.
"Digital mental health platforms are a great first step for anyone who is unable to access treatment or unsure about seeking help for mental health issues," says Amy Newsom, a psychologist at Body Matters Australasia. "There is more and more research emerging to show that e-mental health services can be as effective as face-to-face treatment."
How it worked
While I’ve procrastinated practicing mindfulness in the past, the advent of meditation apps makes it easy for anyone to make it a regular part of their routine. With errant thoughts regularly running rampant in my brain, I couldn’t find any more excuses to avoid meditation.
I downloaded Headspace and Calm: Two popular meditation apps offering free trials promising to help you learn the foundations. I found both apps translated meditative language into layman’s terms, with Headspace offering a particularly no frills (or incense-burning) mindfulness experience, designed to resonate with even the most sceptical person.
The simplest and most important thing I’ve learnt during my short mindfulness journey is meditation isn’t about focusing on nothing; it’s about purposely focusing on something. Although I’m still mastering the art and niggling thoughts still regularly interrupt my moments of Zen, I’m discovering how restorative it is to dedicate a tiny portion of my day purely to prioritising myself.
The apps make it easy to incorporate brief but fulfilling mindfulness practices into my routine and when my whirring brain nags at me to keep one eye on the clock, I delegate time-keeping to the app, while I focus on doing something to bring me back to the present moment. The apps’ portability has so far seen me meditate on the train and in an airport boarding gate.
Headspace ended up being my favourite of the two and it prompts me with daily meditation reminders at a time I specify, which are sometimes the nudge I need to slow down after a frantic day. I’ve also made a habit of completing a two-minute breathing exercise via my Fitbit Versa while in bed at night, which helps to clear my mind without running the risk of getting distracted by notifications on my phone.
The next stop on my e-mental health journey was speaking to a qualified psychologist, but with my days jam-packed commuting and working, talking to someone about my feelings seemed like yet another thing to add to my to-do list. After discovering I could book an appointment online and turn up to my session wearing my comfiest clothes with my cat on my knee, however, the prospect became much more appealing.
I spoke to Ashleigh, a Lysn psychologist, one morning from the comfort of my living room. Having never spoken to a psychologist - either in person or online - I wondered whether it might be difficult to open up to a stranger, particularly when we've only met via a computer screen.
But Ashleigh was quick to build rapport with me, asking pertinent questions and offering sound advice, and the screen and distance dividing us soon felt as though it wasn't there at all. The informality of the set up helped to eliminate the nervous anticipation and embarrassment I think I would have felt face-to-face.
Ashleigh helped me look closer at areas of my life I wasn’t even aware were impacting me, and gave me strategies to help reframe and manage some of the situations in my life I find anxiety-inducing. The session was eye-opening, constructive and has allowed me to experience the benefits speaking to a psychologist can offer: Even if, like me, you think you’ve got yourself all figured-out.
How e-mental health technology can help
E-mental health services are more flexible to use than walk-in services, says Amy. People can access them after hours, on weekends, in the comfort of their own home or during a lunch break. They are also more accessible to people who may experience stigma around seeking help or mental health support.
Amy believes if more people are accessing mental health services, it helps to normalise help-seeking behaviour and opens up the conversation around mental health among groups who may not have been able to speak about these issues before.
"Many of our clients have been referred from digital mental health services or organisations with a database of professionals working in specific areas of expertise," Amy adds. "Often these platforms are the first time the client has had their concerns validated and been given some helpful direction for where to go next."
For me, the most important part of these technologies is their ability to break down the stigma surrounding mental health struggles, sparking conversations about management strategies and empowering people with the tools to access them with a few touches of a button.
"Technology removes the barriers for people to take the first step towards managing their mental health," says Tim. "I think it's saving and improving lives."