Using your smartphone to… reduce stress?

She lost everything in the fire. She lost her possessions and her home. She lost her sense of balance.

In January, Emily Barrie’s home on Gilmour Street in Ottawa burned to the ground, taking everything she owned with it.  She was forced to start her life from scratch in her final semester of university.  Barrie describes her stress levels as being a little different than the ordinary university student’s.

“With my daily meditation and yoga, I’m able to create a solid balance,” she says. “If I didn’t have some sort of daily practice, I would probably have had to drop out of school due to stress from everything that has happened this semester.”

The life of a university student is busy and stressful. Almost 40 per cent of Canadian students reported higher than average stress levels last year, according to the executive report from the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services. This means it‘s not always easy for students like Barrie to find the balance she needs to help her through the day.  But a new trend in the tech industry is helping her fit meditation into her daily schedule. 

Mobile stress reduction applications for smartphones and tablets are gaining popularity in an increasingly tech-reliant age, where more iPhones are sold in a day than babies born, according to Mobile Statistics. In June of 2013, there were over 43,000 mobile healthcare apps on the U.S. iTunes store. Mental health apps, including stress reduction and meditation ones, make up the largest category of apps for a specific condition, says a 2013 study from IMS Health. In fact, 61 per cent of people who own smartphones have downloaded mental health apps and the total percentage of people using these apps doubled from 2010 to 2011, according to Manhattan Research, a technology analysis company and think-tank.

But some experts are wary of looking to smartphones to cure stress which may be caused by technology in the first place. 

“Technology is good but it depends on how you use it and where you use it,” says Carole Sénéchal, a professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa.  She thinks that technology has conditioned us to a sense of immediacy.  We want to get things right away and when we don’t, it stresses us out, she says.

A study from the American Psychological Association found that last year in the United States, media overload from technology was the sixth highest cause of stress.  It ranked above sleep deprivation.

Sénéchal compares this type of technology-induced stress to an addiction. 

“It’s like gambling,” she says.  “The more you are addicted, the more you need help to find a way to stop.”

And stress reduction apps are just like going to the casino. She says you wouldn’t go there to treat your gambling addiction.

“The more you stay away from the casino, the better it will be for you.”

Sénéchal is not the only skeptic when it comes to using technology to reduce stress.  Especially when the University of Cambridge recently proved that 38 per cent of young people feel completely overwhelmed by too much technology.

The problem is in Canada as well.  In 2012, 6.4 million Canadians aged 15 or older reported that the majority of their days were “quite a bit or extremely stressful,” according to the Statistics Canada Perceived Life Stress 2012 report. 

People like Barrie are increasingly turning to apps to help them deal with these everyday stresses.

“If I’m on a bus or something like that and I want to meditate, I can just pop some headphones in and it’s kind of like a traveling zen space that I can bring with me,” says Barrie. 

And this is where the appeal of the apps outweigh their potential detriments. 

“I think that for those who are constantly on their phones, [apps] are a good way to remind them to relax and not get as involved with the minutiae of e-communications,” said Dr. Larry Rosen via e-mail.

Dr. Rosen has been studying the effects of technology on the brain for the past 25 years. He is the author of five books on the topic, including “The Distracted Mind” and “Technostress: Coping with technology @work, @home, @play”.

Despite his endorsement of the stress reduction app, Rosen says that technology is indeed stressing us out.

“What we are seeing is that people who use their smartphones a lot are getting anxious about needing to check in often.”
He adds that this can have negative physical and mental consequences.  Over-use of technology can even impact the ability to focus.

But for people who are already so attached to their phones, Rosen thinks that “as long as the technology does not add stress, but instead helps us reduce it, then it can be a great way to make use of its omnipresence.”

This is something that various hospitals and health institutes are embracing. 

On January 30, the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre released the HealthyMinds app.

The app was originally developed for students but has since had almost 4,000 downloads worldwide.  The Royal is releasing an Android version of the app soon, in order to reach a larger demographic.

“Under stressful situations, you don’t necessarily feel the most resourceful and feel like you know what to do,” says Laura Kidd, communications assistant at The Royal. “The app suggests what you can do in those situations.”

The app was developed by doctors and psychologists at The Royal and contains real strategies for coping with stress. There is even a breathing activity developed by a certified yoga instructor.

According to Kidd, people “need more tools and tips and more help when it comes to what to do when you’re experiencing a crisis or mental health issue.” The app tries to address this need by taking all of the tips and activities that are proven to help reduce stress and putting them in one, easy to access place.

“It’s a tool for students that is simple and friendly and to the point,” says Kidd.

The app is available for free, which is seen as a huge asset to people who make use of these stress reduction technologies.

For Anna Matthews, meditation is the only way she knows of to get to the root causes of stress.  She works for Simply Meditation, an Ottawa organization that offers meditation and yoga classes in the area. According to her, “the inner world can find peace and happiness despite all of the chaos around us.”

The chaos of constant stimulation is something that is difficult to escape. But just like Barrie, who thinks that using stress reduction and meditation apps in public allows her to feel like she has a private space, Matthews sees the benefits of using technology to combat the stress.

“Just knowing that you have something within your means that you can use anytime you need to and its free and you can do it anytime, anywhere, just knowing that is a relief,” she says. 

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