New UA app strives to stop anxiety

By Jamie Donnelly/El Inde

When your heart starts racing and your head is filled with a million thoughts, you are told to close your eyes and picture your happy place. But escaping to your happy place has become so much harder due to the pandemic and travel restrictions. With feelings of uncertainty and stress, what are you supposed to do when anxiety begins to creep up and you have nowhere to go?

Luckily, Judith Gordon, an Interim Associate Dean for Research and an Executive Director for Research Initiatives in the College of Nursing at the University of Arizona, has been working with her research team to take you to sandy beaches or golden sunsets with the push of a button.

Specializing in tobacco prevention, Gordon would create phone apps that would help tobacco users cope with cravings or withdrawal symptoms. They would use guided imagery to create scenarios that would take the user to their happy place. Due to the pandemic and increasing rates of anxiety, Gordon has shifted her research toward helping prevent anxiety for anyone — at any age.

She named the app See Me Serene. As you open the app, you see a menu full of photos of peaceful scenarios featuring everything from kittens to paddle boarding. Once you choose the scene of your liking, a calming voice helps guide you through various breathing exercises that are supposed to help stop your anxious thoughts.

“There’s a lot of technology that can help people be less isolated from other people,” Gordon said. “But what we didn’t see anywhere was anything that could help with the stay-at-home orders, the fact that people really can’t get out in nature and do all of the same kinds of fun outdoor activities that they used to be able to do.”

When Gordon worked with participants in tobacco cessation programs, she found that when they would help them cope with cravings, the subjects would often go to scenes of nature. As a result, Gordon and her team developed apps for tobacco users that would include scenes of nature where they could imagine themselves in. When Covid-19 hit, Gordon and her team began to think about the different ways the pandemic impacted people’s mental health such as stress and anxiety. This thought led to the creation of See Me Serene.

“For us, it was sort of an ‘A-ha moment,’ where we said, ‘Well, you know, we’re using guided imagery in these other contexts to help people deal with the stress of quitting smoking, could they be used more generally to help people deal with stress related to social isolation? Or in this case, not being able to be outdoors and engage in activities that they use to help them deal with stress under normal situations?” Gordon said.

Having developed apps that used guided imagery before, Gordon knew she needed to bring together the right team. The team includes investigators and staff from different colleges including medicine, psychology and computer science. They were able to develop See Me Serene four months later. According to Gordon, it took them a bit longer than expected to get the app developed, but as of August 1, the app was available on both the App Store and Google Play Store.

This is what the See Me Serene homepage looks like. Photo courtesy of See Me Serene app.

“If it weren’t for everybody, this project wouldn’t be successful, and it wouldn’t have happened,” Gordon said.

Chris Gniady, an associate professor at the College of Computer Science, helped manage app development and any related computer science tasks. Along with some undergrad students, he had a hand in developing See Me Serene.

“These are students that we found through a posting and our undergrad students in computer science that helped me develop the app,” Gnaidy said. “Currently there’s only one student actively working on the app.”

While the app is for all ages, Gordon thinks college students will especially benefit it due to the limited social interaction they are facing because of the pandemic. She said that it’s difficult for college students to be asked to stay indoors and avoid fun activities with other people, so the app allows you to get that outdoor experience while being safe.

“We realized that you’re giving up a lot by not being able to go out and go hiking with a big group of friends or engaging in social activities that you would normally do,” Gordon said. “So, using our app is a way that you could get those same kinds of positive, happy feelings while still staying safe and protecting other people.”

In addition to the lack of social interaction, college students are also dealing with stress and anxious thoughts. Leslie Ralph, a psychologist at the University of Arizona Counseling and Psych Services, said that anxiety is one of the top two problems seen at CAPS. It was common to hear that the pandemic was a trigger for some people’s anxiety due to feelings of uncertainty and isolation. Ralph thinks that mental health apps like See Me Serene are a good way to help ease anxiety and racing thoughts.

“It’s helpful to have things like that on your phone to go to rather than like say social media, which sometimes students will use as just a distraction, which often increases their anxiety,” Ralph said.

With a lot of mental health apps out there, Gordon and her team wanted to make sure See Me Serene is evidence-based. They are currently conducting a study where 100 participants will use the app for four weeks and provide self-report survey data. Since cortisol is the primary stress hormone, the subjects’ cortisol levels will also be tested in order to see if the app actually helps relieve stress. Gordon wants to make sure the app will work the way it’s expected to and not have any unintended consequences.

“When somebody in academia or a scientist develops an invention, or an app, or a product that aims to help people in some way, we test that program to make sure that it does what we expect it to do, and that it doesn’t have any bad side effects,” Gordon said.

As for the future, Gordon hopes the study will have promising results so they can submit a grant proposal for a larger grant in order to update the app. She would also like to reprogram it to add some functionality and add more scenarios. In the meantime, Gordon and her team continue to update the app, fix any bugs and strive to eliminate anxiety — one download at a time.