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These Apps Fight Depression and Anxiety (Science Says So)

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Today, the right app can help you sleep better, train harder, eat cleaner, and—according to new research from Northwestern Medicine and funded by the National Institutes of Health—even reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

In the study, released today, 96 people using a suite of 13 apps called IntelliCare (created by Northwestern doctors and researchers for the study) four times a day for eight weeks saw a 50 percent drop in the severity of their depression and anxiety symptoms. It's an outcome similar to what docs expect through psychotherapy or antidepressants, the study authors say. (And unlike therapy or meds, the apps are all available for free in the Google Play store, with iOS versions on the way.)

So what makes these 13 stand out from the more than 1,500 depression-related apps that already exist?

According to Stephen Schueller, Ph.D., coauthor of the study, mental health apps tend to offer one of two experiences: Some offer one catch-all technique aimed at making you feel better—so you download the app, decide the approach doesn't work for you, and quit using it. And some offer a lot of different features, making them tricky to use (wasn't this supposed to calm me down?).

IntelliCare is different: "Instead of building one app with a lot of features, we built 13 that focus on different aspects of depression and anxiety," Schueller says. There are apps that target sleep problems, social isolation, lack of activity, and obsessive thinking—all common causes of depression and anxiety—and each is designed by Northwestern clinicians and based on validated techniques used by therapists. (P.S. Did You Know There Are 4 Different Types of Depression?)

For example, My Mantra teaches you what a mantra is and how the right one can help you succeed. With pre-loaded examples—"I am resilient" or "I am strong"—it also guides you to craft your own. Slumber Time helps you create a good bedtime checklist (no technology, no TV!). Thought Challenger trains you to catch negative thoughts as they pop up. The app asks you to type in your negative thought and then an alternative, helpful way to think about the problem.

The apps don't have to be a huge time commitment either. In the study, people used each app for just about one minute at a time (which added up to 195 times over the eight weeks). "We know people tend to use their phones in brief bursts," says Schueller. "The exercises are meant to be simple, brief, and focused on getting people to do things as opposed to giving them information."

It's an important distinction, considering many of us (1 in 5 of us any given year) struggle with mental health issues. But remember, the apps are not a cure-all. If you think you're suffering from depression or anxiety, touch base with your doctor to find out the best course of action. Ultimately, finding out what works for you can be the key to lifting your spirits—and, hey, if a few downloads can play a role in that, we're not complaining.

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