The mobile apps and wearable tech tapping into users' emotions to tackle depression and anxiety

August 9, 2018 by Gareth Willmer, From Horizon Magazine, Horizon: The EU Research & Innovation Magazine
A smartphone chatbot that reinforces positive thinking and emotion-tracking tech are designed to support users living with mental health conditions. Credit: Pxhere, licensed under CC0

Personalised smartphone applications and wearable technologies that are attuned to the user's state of mind are offering customised ways of helping people cope with mental illness.

The rising incidence of places great strain on systems and societies around the world. In the EU, are already estimated to cost the economy €798 billion a year – a figure that is expected to double by 2030.

Given the prevalence of , some researchers seeking alternative ways to treat the more common conditions are turning to technology to help.

While there has been a boom in self-help and digital wellness apps on smartphones and tablets promising support for mental health issues, much of the data they generate needs to be first interpreted by before it can be used in an effective recovery programme.

'Most existing apps stop with the data – it's not part of a programme of interventions you can take,' said Professor Corina Sas, a researcher in human-computer interaction at Lancaster University in the UK. 'At present, data capture is very disconnected with the high-level-type thinking we make in terms of emotional processing.'

To tackle this, Prof. Sas and her colleagues are attempting to create more intelligent, interactive technologies that harness information about the emotional states of users over time to automatically offer tailored advice on dealing with mental health issues.

Through the AffecTech project, they are developing a personalised, low-cost toolkit using a range of technologies for individuals with 'affective' health conditions like depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. They aim to support people with mild to modern conditions—some of whom may not visit a doctor, but could benefit from this technology.

'The idea is to support people in capturing emotional responses, but then to use new types of interactive technologies that can help people make sense of this,' said Prof. Sas, who is the principal investigator for AffecTech.

The project began at the start of 2017 and involves a consortium of universities, health and tech organisations. It is currently exploring different devices and technologies to help track patients' emotions and then suggest ways for people to manage their issues. These include using apps in conjunction with sensors on mobile phones, smart watches or other wearable devices, along with artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality technology.

Emotional management

'My vision is that we build a toolbox of interfaces involving different types of technology,' said Prof. Sas. After interpreting a user's emotional state using technologies such as AI, the system would then offer relevant therapeutic activities to help the individual manage their condition.

One approach, she says, could be to use wearable cameras to allow users to record events taking place when they are in a particular emotional state, which they could later watch to help them understand the factors that may trigger positive and negative emotions.

The team has also tested prototypes of wrist-worn, colour-changing biosensors that help users track their own emotions.

Another idea stems from colouring in intricate mandala patterns, which some research has shown to reduce anxiety and is growing in popularity through the sale of adult colouring books. 'Imagine a cube on which you move your finger and start colouring in patterns,' said Prof. Sas.

She describes this type of emotional management as a 'paradigm shift' that could not only have long-term mental health benefits for patients, but also lead to major cost savings for health services.

The project, which includes the Leeds NHS Trust as a member, is also seeking to test the technologies with users recruited through national health services, charities and other communities.

But while can be used to help patients manage their emotional state, it can often lack a key element that personal contact with health professionals can provide – empathy. To address this, some researchers are using advances in AI to offer patients support on chat-based apps.

Chat app

The Shim project, run by a team of psychologists, researchers, writers, engineers and designers, is combining techniques from cognitive behavioural therapy – a talking therapy commonly used to treat people with mental health issues – with human-like support on a mobile-based chat app.

The system uses AI to spot language patterns and keywords to create personalised text-based conversations that help to shift the user's mental perspective when they report a negative thought.

Dr. Kien Hoa Ly, a researcher in behavioural sciences and learning at Linköping University in Sweden and chief executive of the project's company Hello Shim, explained that the app uses positive psychology to help a user reflect more optimistically on their own life.

'In the everyday interaction, we are using positive psychology to make the user reflect upon positive things in life, experiences and what the user is grateful for,' said Dr. Ly. 'We are building a mental map of every user and their inputs. As a user talks to Shim it grows, which makes Shim remember more things and ask more questions.'

The app might ask the user, for example, how they felt when they were doing an activity they enjoy such as hiking in the mountains, getting them to reflect on positive emotions.

This use of empathy differentiates the app from other apps, says Dr. Ly. 'Our mission is to build the world's best data model and predictive tools to help people improve their wellbeing,' he said. 'We do this by understanding what specific reply from Shim is most likely to be helpful given a negative thought from a specific user.'

The company is also experimenting with social features, such as sharing positive thoughts with friends and family.

Since launching on Apple mobile devices in Sweden last November, Shim has been downloaded 10,000 times. The company hopes to launch the app in the US later this year.

A pilot study published last year showed that participants who talked to Shim reported a higher level of emotional wellbeing and lower stress levels than a control group after using the app for two weeks. Shim is now planning a larger study, which may involve collaborating with several US universities.

'In the future, we will see a world where you pick up your phone when you are feeling down to get emotional support in the moment,' Dr. Ly said.

Explore further: Mental health mobile apps are effective self-help tools, study shows

Related Stories

Mental health mobile apps are effective self-help tools, study shows

November 20, 2017
When it comes to strengthening your mental or emotional health, would you trust an app?

On a mission – 'mood' apps to combat depression

May 30, 2018
Four years ago, a team of Monash psychologists began working on a smartphone app to help combat the growing spectre of anxiety and depression. Now there are two such apps, with one the winner of multiple awards. That app ...

To reduce stress and anxiety, write your happy thoughts down

July 12, 2018
Writing about positive emotions may help to reduce stress and anxiety, according to our new study, published in the British Journal of Health Psychology.

New mental health app helps track moods and promotes emotional self-awareness

April 20, 2016
A team from Monash University has developed a new smartphone app, MoodPrism, to track users' moods over time and support their mental health and well-being. The app is now available on both Android and Apple platforms and ...

Keeping watch on mental health

May 18, 2018
Increasingly popular smart watches can be used to help clinicians identify early warning signs of mental health disorders and monitor the success of treatment.

Study shows cognitive behavioural therapy can improve emotion regulation in children with autism

April 24, 2018
New research from York University's Faculty of Health shows cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help children with autism manage not only anxiety but other emotional challenges, such as sadness and anger.

Recommended for you

What social stress in monkeys can tell us about human health

December 11, 2018
Research in recent years has linked a person's physical or social environment to their well-being. Stress wears down the body and compromises the immune system, leaving a person more vulnerable to illnesses and other conditions. ...

The richer the reward, the faster you'll likely move to reach it, study shows

December 11, 2018
If you are wondering how long you personally are willing to stand in line to buy that hot new holiday gift, scientists at Johns Hopkins Medicine say the answer may be found in the biological rules governing how animals typically ...

Using neurofeedback to prevent PTSD in soldiers

December 11, 2018
A team of researchers from Israel, the U.S. and the U.K. has found that using neurofeedback could prevent soldiers from experiencing PTSD after engaging in emotionally difficult situations. In their paper published in the ...

Receiving genetic information can change risk

December 11, 2018
Millions of people in the United States alone have submitted their DNA for analysis and received information that not only predicts their risk for disease but, it turns out, in some cases might also have influenced that risk, ...

You make decisions quicker and based on less information than you think

December 11, 2018
We live in an age of information. In theory, we can learn everything about anyone or anything at the touch of a button. All this information should allow us to make super-informed, data-driven decisions all the time.

Trying to get people to agree? Skip the French restaurant and go out for Chinese food

December 11, 2018
Here's a new negotiating tactic: enjoy a family-style meal with your counterpart before making your opening bid.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.