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Using Tech To Tame Anxiety and Stress

A new venture aims to crowdsource emotional health

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by Sarah Mahoney

Well-Being
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Feeling stressed out? Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Northwestern University are cooking up a peer-to-peer app to combat anxiety and even depression. Their approach differs from online support groups, which are comforting but may not have a lasting impact, explains Rob Morris, who has a Ph.D. in media arts and sciences from MIT, and is the lead researcher. The system, called Panoply, “actually encourages users to practice therapeutic techniques.” 

Morris got the idea when he was struggling to learn programming. “I had studied psychology before, so when I got to MIT with no engineering background, I had to learn programming very fast. I came across a website where programmers go when they are stuck with a bug, and users around the world quickly respond to help. It was wonderful. This hive of programmers are very helpful.”

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It made Morris wonder if he could crowdsource tools for emotional health, as well. The underlying premise is that many people suffer from thinking that is, well, just as buggy as software can be. These include things like catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, or what shrinks call “fortune-telling” and “mind reading,” believing we can see and know things (usually bad) that we can’t possibly know.

Panoply provides a social network of like-minded people. To get the conversation going, researchers started with a group of 1,000 people who were given a brief lesson in such therapeutic methods as reappraisal, which helps people look at their problems differently. 

“So let’s say you are shy, and go on Panoply and post that when you go out with a certain group of extroverted friends, you feel like a loser,” he says. While you are waiting for other Panoply users to respond with specific advice about how to reframe that precise scenario, you can also browse through other posts—and responses—that are similar.

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The idea was to create something that “didn't feel like eating vegetables or doing homework,” he says. “People are breaking these therapeutic skills down into bite-sized tasks.” Members can up-vote responses, “creating this really beautiful interaction cycle, where the more you help other people, the deeper you learn these techniques.”

And it works. In a study with 166 people with symptoms of depression, researchers compared Panoply to a technique known as expressive writing, often suggested as a way for people to get their feelings out. Panoply did better in all outcomes, but was especially  effective in teaching cognitive reappraisal, as well as improving mood.

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Morris says that while research supports the benefits of programs like expressive writing, they won’t work if people don’t continue to use them. “So we really want to make something that is engaging, and fun to use.” Those in the three-week study logged in 21 times, and spent about nine minutes there. The writing group used that technique just 10 times, for an average of three minutes. (The site is monitored to prevent bullying or malicious comments.)

 

Morris is hoping to build a bigger, more robust community where people can help each other. (Meantime, check out Life Reimagined’s program, Stress and Time.) “I think everyone should have some kind of practice that helps them take care of their emotional health,” he says, “and we wanted to build a rewarding way to do it. The idea is that you can gain a more flexible cognitive style, increase your ability to think more optimistically about stressors, and be less inclined to ruminate.”

Photo Credit:  Blend/Getty