Testing laptops and phones as stress-reducing aids through SHS’s new program

| Staff Writer

Whether you’re stressed over midterms, medical school applications, managing your daily routine or just life in general, I recommend you take a minute to sign up for Student Health Service’s new Therapy Assisted Online program and download the Therapy Assisted Online Mobile App. Journaling, making schedules and meeting therapists can be time-consuming, so in this age of technology, you may benefit from tools designed to seamlessly integrate into your busy life that revolves around a screen.

I was curious about what this program entailed because the semester has been off to quite a stressful start for me, and I wanted to learn to better handle my stressors and anxiety triggers. Although I usually manage to de-stress by talking to my family or going on long runs, these strategies are often not possible given my insane workload. Therapy Assisted Online (TAO) seemed like the perfect solution because it was all online, and to use it I just needed a 30-minute window every day with access to my laptop and phone.

IMG_8629Courtesy of TAO app

Eager to see if TAO would work for me, I signed up for the program through the SHS website. It tells you that this is a dedicated 7- to 9-week program, not a quick fix or a temporary solution. This program is designed to help you tackle your problems at their roots and slowly work on reporting, analyzing and reflecting on how you respond to different stressors so that you’re equipped with a skill set for life. I started the “Calming Your Worry” anxiety treatment for students four days ago. Over the course of the treatment, you essentially learn how to recognize anxiety and worry, how the brain responds to them and how to set helpful goals for managing stressors.

I really like that the app is structured in modules, which breaks the whole treatment into doable fragments. It also helps you see what the rest of the week entails at a glance and gets you thinking about what you can hope to achieve by the end of the week. This works in your favor because you (or at least I) subconsciously start making little changes each day. For example, when I saw that the first week was mostly about goal-setting, I began setting more realistic goals in terms of my study and sleep schedules. Obviously, it won’t work the same way for everyone, but when you start this program with the intent of overcoming your stress or anxiety and see words like “goal-setting” pop out of the screen, those words become red flags that you subconsciously seek to modify or improve. This is pretty much the way most similar websites work, but TAO does a good job of breaking it down into small baby steps that will make you feel in charge all along.

However, since the website is designed to be a time-saving alternative, or even an additional boost to traditional therapy, don’t expect it to be a platform to vent or rant in a long, heartfelt manner. The great thing is that each module has only a few short video clips (lasting three minutes at most, at least up until where I’ve gotten so far) that give you a feel for that day’s session in the quickest but most understandable way possible. Then, you get some short reflection questions on a notecard-esque interface where you can write out one-line or even one-word answers. You can also pen down immediate thoughts and goals, similar to techniques associated with cognitive behavioral therapy.

To help with jotting down thoughts and anxiety levels on an immediate basis, the TAO program has an app that you can download on any Apple or Android device. This mobile app contains two tools: the mind elevator and the log. The mind elevator tool is a quick way of jotting down some thoughts (read: 140-character thoughts) about how you’re feeling at a given moment. It probably uses a program that analyzes some of the key words in your writing to give you feedback of how positive you’re feeling. The mind elevator is pretty accurate most of the time but obviously not perfect. I was mildly surprised that it gave me a positive rating for my statement “definitely more caffeine than I had intended” (yes, one of my main goals is to reduce my caffeine intake). And when I was “feeling good that I get extra time to study for physics and…write this article well in time,” it gave me a mediocre rating. Also, the Log tool helps practice the skills learned in each module, but doesn’t work until a module has been completed.

The app’s description mentions individualized reminders and suggestions, but the notifications on my phone screen simply say “message from TAO” and don’t display the contents of the notifications, and neither does the app when I actually open it. But I think the most user-unfriendly flaw of the app interface is that it often has very slow response times. This could have something to do with my phone and how much memory it has, but a robust app should be quite fast and efficient, regardless of how many others I have on my phone. However, I’m sure TAO will come up with better versions of the app based on user feedback. After all, this is the first time they are testing out some of the program’s tools on mobile platforms.

Overall, I think the TAO program has a lot of potential, but it still relies heavily on the website for the main treatment and uses the mobile app only as a supplement. The program currently only has treatments for anxiety, mood improvement and interpersonal relationships. So, if you’re looking for something beyond that scope, or the knowledge, patience and comforting presence of an actual therapist, then the TAO program is not for you. At best, it can work as an additional support and means to practice what your therapist talks you through in person. However, if you’re crunched for time like me and just want a rapid, consistent and systematic way to learn to deal with your stressors, then the program looks promising—at least from the four days I’ve been using it.

Pros: Great concept, time-saving, efficient, targeted, well-structured, well-paced, consistent, see results quickly with short explanatory videos and goal-oriented quick reflections

Cons: Not apt for someone who feels constricted by the brevity of reflections and character limits on the Mind Elevator statements, poor interface design and integration of technical aspects, app doesn’t always accurately rate statements on user’s feelings, website (actual program) only has anxiety and mood improvement treatments