The symptoms usually start when Matthew Bambach is going through a major life change – his body tenses up, his head feels hot and his mind begins racing.

“The world feels like it is spinning and eventually you just feel numb and lay down and curl up in a ball,” says the graduate student at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, who has been seeing therapists for anxiety since 2012 and experienced its symptoms most of his life.

Bambach wants to make it easier for people like himself to manage the life-altering symptoms of anxiety. He is in the process of creating a mobile app, as part of his thesis, to help people calm themselves when they start to feel out of control.

When development is complete, Worry Quest could be the latest among a number of health apps that have hit the market in the last several years as doctors and hospitals use technology to better care for patients. Patients are using apps to track calories and blood sugar, reduce stress and schedule doctors’ appointments. LifeBridge Health in Baltimore, US, just launched an app that lets patients see what appointments doctors have available. In the mental health realm, there are apps to track and give coping mechanisms for the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

Bambach’s Worry Quest app is aimed at college students like himself who may be grappling with the stress brought on by classes with heavy workloads, student-loan debt and learning to live in a new environment. While all students feel these stressors, those with anxiety issues may find themselves so consumed by the stress that it keeps them from going to classes or being able to study.

In his own experience, Bambach found that therapy was expensive and that psychotherapists had long wait lists and many times didn’t take insurance. School counselling services were overloaded.

The app is not intended as a replacement for traditional therapy but could give students another way to cope, he says.

“I see it as way to fill in the gaps between appointments,” Bambach says. “Or if someone wants to try something different than sitting with a therapist – and without sinking hundreds of dollars into treatment.”

Bambach says Worry Quest offers a fun way for students to deal with their anxiety through the use of adventure games. They use the app to create avatars to represent themselves and monsters to represent their anxiety. They then take on the monster in different ways.

For instance, they may battle the monster, which involves more cathartic, tactile activities and use of reason to balance out negative thoughts. Or they can prank the monster, which involves humiliating it in goofy ways. Humour shifts the person’s perspective, and laughter helps release tension, Bambach says. The user can also choose to soothe the monster, calming it down through more meditative, mindful activities.

But the use of apps is still new, and some say more studies are needed on the reliability of health apps. Not all apps are created equal.

Bambach is creating an app to help people with anxiety.

Bambach is creating an app to help people with anxiety.

Cardiologists at Johns Hopkins found that a popular smartphone app marketed to measure blood pressure missed high measurements in eight out of 10 patients. The app was supposed to work by having a patient place a cellphone on their chest and a finger over the built-in camera lens. The Instant Blood Pressure app is no longer available for purchase but was downloaded more than 100,000 times and is still functional on phones, the researchers said.

“We think there is definitely a role for smartphone technology in healthcare, but because of the significant risk of harm to users who get inaccurate information, the results of our study speak to the need for scientific validation and regulation of these apps before they reach consumers,” says Dr Timothy B. Plante, a fellow in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Belinda Borrelli, director of behavioural science research at Boston University’s Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine, recently helped to edit a special issue of the Journal Health Psychology that examined how health apps and other mobile platforms are being used to help patients with psychological health issues.

As medical costs continue to skyrocket, Borrelli said apps and other mobile technology can offer an affordable way to prevent, assess, track and treat illnesses. But the apps should be based on sound scientific principle and designed with input from people who would use them. Designers of an app should also seek insight from medical professionals such as psychiatrists or psychologists, she says.

“If one of those three areas are left out, it is likely that the app will not be effective or could even be harmful,” Borrelli says.

Bambach is working with two professionals in the mental health field. One of them, Dika Seltzer, a licensed clinical professional counsellor and psychological assistant, has been reviewing the app through the building process to make sure it is clinically accurate.

Above: Bambach's video art on distractions

Seltzer said the app could be a good tool to help patients calm their day-to-day anxiety. “It would be one more thing in the arsenal of tools that we use as therapists,” she says.

Borrelli said that apps can also help patients track and manage their own treatment between visits and help doctors follow that treatment more closely.

“Apps should not be thought of as a replacement for treatment – rather a way to support and maintain treatment goals,” Borrelli says.

A drawback to health apps is that people have to be motivated to use them. Those most at risk for disease might not have that motivation, she says.

Bambach says he has suffered from anxiety symptoms for a good chunk of his life. He was so anxious and obsessed with perfection as a child that he would have headaches. He suffered with the symptoms for so long it seemed normal.

But after graduation he moved to Canada for a new job and became so overwhelmed with living in a new place and figuring out what he wanted to do with his life that he suffered from breakdowns so bad he could not work. He found a therapist who taught him cognitive behavioural therapy, which helped him become more aware of negative thoughts and overreactions so he could react to them differently.

After moving to Baltimore, Bambach tried yoga, meditation, sleep and jogging to deal with his anxiety, to no avail. Psychologists put him on wait lists or didn’t take his insurance. He went to one provider who told him it would cost US$800 (about RM3,273) for a consultation.

“When I got accepted to MICA, it was a big decision,” Bambach says. “I started to get that anxiety again. I started to get those self-doubts and those thoughts popped up again and I was having breakdowns. “It got painful, and some days I didn’t want to leave the house. You just want to turn it off, but it is not that easy. People say just calm down and don’t think about it. But that is not how it works.”

Looking for a way to help himself and others, Bambach interviewed friends about their own anxieties. He decided on developing an app because so many young people carry smartphones. He explored how anxiety was depicted in art and noticed it was often drawn as a monster that lingered above people’s heads.

His app is still in the prototype stages, and he hopes to find a developer and bring it to market. But he knows that can be expensive and take time. One attempt at crowdfunding garnered just a portion of the money he had hoped to raise.

But he is confident he can make it happen.

“Anxiety can be difficult to deal with, and this will hopefully make it easier for other students,” he says. – The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service