Studies indicate that stress management training has a long-term positive effect on health. Despite this, many of us feel we don't have time for – or can't afford – traditional psychotherapy. With digital health, however, stress relief is but a *free* app away.
Perhaps chronic stress is a post-modern epidemic.
Although stressors can come from positive (i.e., a vacation, landing that new job, a visit from an out-of-town friend) or negative events, our brains rarely make a distinction.
The fight-or-flight hormones that often rage through our bodies cause our hearts to race.
Stress decreases our immune responses. It can lead to digestive and reproductive issues. It can cause headaches, insomnia, depression, anger and irritability.
Stress Management Training Has Long-Term Benefits
It should come as no surprise, then, that a study published last week in Cancer, the journal of the American Cancer Society, would find that there are long-term psychological benefits to learning stress management techniques.
The research indicates that women who received cognitive-behavioral stress management (CBSM) after surgery for early-stage breast cancer reported lower depressive symptoms and better quality of life than the control group up to 15 years later.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “cognitive behavioral stress management (CBSM) is a short-term therapeutic approach that focuses on how people’s thoughts affect their emotions and behaviors.” The goal of CBSM is to identify and change thought patterns or urges that might be irrational or maladaptive. It often includes relaxation training.
As the number of women surviving breast cancer increases, questions of quality of life and psychosocial well-being among survivors arise. The authors state:
Medical advances that have extended survival and lowered recurrence rates in breast cancer also bring persistent side effects and emotional sequelae into the post-treatment period. Fatigue, insomnia, depression, cognitive dysfunction, and menopausal symptoms are among the commonly reported difficulties of breast cancer survivors, and they are compounded by fears and stress concerning the possibility of recurrence.
Early implementation of cognitive-behavioral interventions may influence long-term psychosocial functioning in breast cancer survivors, according to the results of this most recent study. Compared to the controls, women who received CBSM following surgery reported higher quality of life, better physical and emotional well-being, and lower depressive symptoms – even 8-15 years later.
The study’s lead author, Jamie Stagl, who is currently at Massachusetts General Hospital, states:
Women with breast cancer who participated in the study initially used stress management techniques to cope with the challenges of primary treatment to lower distress. Because these stress management techniques also give women tools to cope with fears of recurrence and disease progression, the present results indicate that these skills can be used to reduce distress and depressed mood and optimize quality of life across the survivorship period as women get on with their lives.
Stress Effects Us All, Regardless of Diagnosis
Breast cancer survivors face unique stressors that may impact their treatment outcomes – but they certainly are not the only people who experience stress and know of its ill effects on health. According to a 2014 survey conducted by the APA, the average American reports a stress level of 4.9 on a 10-point scale. This is higher than the 3.5 level respondents felt was healthy.
1 in 5 people feel that they do nothing to relieve stress, according to the APA survey.
People who are experiencing chronic stress may feel like they don’t have time for psychotherapy, meditation, or yoga. Unfortunately, with chronic stress, people tend to find other, unhealthy ways to relieve stress. Chronic stress taxes the body’s systems and is often associated with maladaptive behaviors, such as overeating, alcohol or drug abuse, and social withdrawal.
Under stress, there's an impulse to do something, to move, and often, eating becomes the activity that relieves the stress. It's easy to do and it's comforting,
says David Ginsberg, MD, a psychiatrist and director of the Behavioral Health Program at New York University Medical Center.
Stress, Technology, and the Search for Mindfulness
If stress is a 21st century epidemic, then we need 21st century solutions. In times of frenzy, it may seem easier to reach for a bag of chips or a glass of wine (or more), in order to keep on keeping on. But there are other, healthier ways of alleviating stress that are possibly even more convenient.
My colleague, the talented Josh Trent, writes about devices and apps that help reduce stress, encourage exercise, and increase mindfulness. Trent’s article, 4 Digital Health Apps that Will Change Your Life, got me thinking: there must be a way to learn stress management skills without spending hours on a psychologist’s couch. I’ve done the couch thing – what I need is therapy I can access when it’s convenient for me.
With that in mind, I scoured the Internet for apps designed to reduce stress. Here are 3 cheap apps worth checking out:
This app encourages deep abdominal breathing – a skill we’re born with but often grow out of. The Breathe2Relax app, from the National Center for Telehealth and Technology (T2), includes video instructions for diaphragmatic breathing, and trains users to inhale deeply and exhale fully using guided imagery. The app is free, and is suitable for those seeking a quick-stress fix and for those looking to increase their lung capacity over time.
For those of us that find meditation intimidating or just can’t seem to sit still, walking meditations that focus on tuning into sensory input might be the answer. Walking Meditations, an app by Meditation Oasis, makes meditation feel simple and natural, as users tune into the rich experiences of their bodies in motion.
A team of Australian psychologists who specialize in child and adolescent therapy developed this app, which encourages awareness and enables personalized anxiety monitoring and management. Smiling Mind offers multi-media lessons and games along with age-specific guided meditations for the whole family.
The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.