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Digital mental health tools: how do they work?

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Teaching cognitive behavioral tools for mood management has been a large part of my psychotherapy practice since I began over 10 years ago. Some of the most effective tools are relaxation techniques that work to help people manage a wide range of common mental and physical health symptoms, including anxiety/worry, self destructive thinking habits, panic attacks, insomnia, depression and chronic pain. During psychotherapy, patients learn how and why these tools work, followed by demonstrations and practice in session, followed by homework for review in between appointments. Innovative developments in technology have given people helpful tools to support what they are learning in psychotherapy, including the ability to measure and track their body’s physiological functioning with wearable devices. A variety of mental health focused mobile apps can work as supportive guides for relaxation, cognitive restructuring, and mood management. Some apps are built as digital games, based on research findings that suggest “gamifying” a scientifically-supported mental health intervention offers measurable mental and behavioral benefits for people with relatively high levels of anxiety. Mental health professionals now have a wide range of supplemental digital tools to choose from to support their patient care, as well as individuals aiming for increased mental wellness. Discuss with your mental health provider which digital tools best match the work you are doing together; if she/he is not familiar with any, aim for those utilizing evidence-based practices developed by health professionals, and steer clear of those making dubious health claims. While the latest ‘best mental health apps’ lists are a great place to start, ultimately the ‘best app’ is one that is a scientifically supported one that you feel you can use with ease and consistency.

What makes these tools so effective and how do they work?

Relaxation techniques improve the mind and body’s physiological functioning and health. Panic and other physical symptoms of stress are caused by the body’s automatic reaction to perceived fear. “The Stress Response” occurs when chemicals flood your body that prepare you for “fight or flight.” While the stress response is helpful in true emergency situations where you must be alert and ready to act, overall exhaustion can occur when constantly activated. Relaxation strategies work to elicit “The Relaxation Response”, which rebalances your body’s physiological system by: deepening your breathing, reducing stress hormones, slowing down your heart rate and blood pressure, and relaxing your muscles. In addition to its calming physical effects, research shows that the relaxation response also increases energy/ability to focus, fight diseases, relieves aches and pains, heightens problem-solving abilities, and boosts motivation and productivity.

Cognitive techniques such as thought records and mood trackers reduce anxious, depressive or self-destructive thinking habits. Worry, panic and fear are all normal and automatic human responses to real or imagined threats to safety. Self-evaluative thoughts play an important role in motivating us to identify errors and take action for improvement. All of these types of thoughts work as a natural alert system, compelling us to make necessary changes that can remove us from harm’s way, decrease harmful behaviors or increase healthy behaviors. While sometimes these thoughts work in our best interest, they can also be hazardous to our mental and physical state of health if left poorly managed. Automatic thoughts of worry or self-criticism can become distorted and irrational when left unchecked, and actually prevent us from being able to function optimally in our daily lives. Learning to refute and manage irrational thoughts is an important step in healthy coping when faced with uncontrollable circumstances.

Professional mental health treatment by trained experts remain an essential part of diagnosing and treating mental illness. There is no substitute for understanding the myriad composition, history and progress of an individual’s mental health symptoms. A person’s mental health can erode suddenly and sometimes without warning; dangerous progression of symptoms can be avoided with timely and appropriate professional care.

Dr. Christina Villarreal is a clinical psychologist practicing in the San Francisco Bay Area, California. For professional inquiries please visit www.drchristinavillarreal.com

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