Software reviews: Wellbeing, stress and self-care apps for your phone
We look at some apps designed to help you combat stress and anxiety, and fix your work-life balance.
Dealing with irrational thinking
Self-help and pop psychology is a massive publishing phenomenon, so it is no surprise to find it all over the various app stores too. However, while some publishers simply cram a few chapters into an e-book, others are rather more creative, actively using your smartphone to help you work through problems and challenges.
One big area where this can help is in irrational thinking, and especially in anxiety management, a topic that also crosses over into related areas such as stress relief, relaxation and even anger management. The actual management of anxiety is something that, in practice, we must do for ourselves, but few of us can learn how to do that without at least a bit of practical help and advice.
This is where professionally-designed apps such as Self-help Anxiety Management (SAM) come in. Put together by a team of university psychologists and computer scientists, and offered free on Android and Apple, SAM shows its credentials right from the start, with a clean and light user interface designed to put the user at ease. Then, although it contains a fair amount of guidance and advice, it is not text-heavy, which should make it easier to navigate even while you are in a state of anxiety.
As for the actual content, this has clearly been assembled by people who thoroughly understand the subject matter. It ranges from information about anxiety and health, through advice on how to relax yourself both physically and mentally, to simple tools that you can use to list the situations that make you anxious, track your anxiety levels, and see which factors affect you the most. Almost all the self-help aids take the form of exercises, graded from 1 to 3 for difficulty; the idea is that you pick the ones you prefer and that work for you, and add them to a favourites list which SAM calls your anxiety toolkit.
Of course, keeping track of your anxieties is a key part of recognising, understanding and managing them. SAM also warns that, as with so many things in life, self-help requires both time and practice – the realistic goal is many small incremental improvements, not a few sudden jumps – and rounds off with a private social network for SAM users.
If your irrational thinking issues are in other areas, such as jealousy, depression or anger, some of the same strategies can help there too. In particular, you can try using an app such as Cognitive Diary CBT Self-Help (free with ads on Android) to track those thoughts, so you can build the skills to assess and challenge them.
As the name suggests, the app is based on a technique called cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT. Some psychologists say CBT is an over-simplistic short-term fix that lacks long-term effectiveness, while others say it is a skill that must be learnt and practised for the long term. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the argument, the psychologist behind Cognitive Diary stresses the importance of practice and repetition – which is where the app can help – when it comes to changing damaging thought patterns, and the risk of a relapse if you stop practising too soon and return to old habits.
Relax Lite: Stress Relief
Free on Android and iOS
Many traditions, both medical and esoteric, have developed relaxation techniques, sometimes with an interesting degree of overlap between otherwise rather different traditions. For example, Relax Lite comes from the yoga world, specifically Yoga Nidra, but its lessons in controlled breathing and meditation could be of use to anyone. The breathing element is particularly nice – in essence it is just a timer, but a very specific one, designed to help you learn and practise deep and calm breathing. You can work through multiple levels, with your choice from a list of musical tones and background images to help you get the idea at each stage. Breathing exercises of this kind can help with a variety of things, not just general relaxation and better use of your lungs. It can also help deal with insomnia, anxiety or panic attacks, and even pain relief.
The guided meditation element of Relax Lite is rather wordy and may be too advanced for some novices; it also assumes you have somewhere you can lie down. If it works for you, then consider buying the full version of the app (£2.99) for multi-stage breathing and longer meditation exercises. This also gets rid of the free version’s pop-up ads, which can be jarring – an ad for a wargame in the middle of a relaxation app, for example.
Otherwise, for the relaxation element try some other apps specifically targeting stress, such as Mindware’s Stress Reduction Audio, available on Android (free with ads or £1.22). It uses a form of guided visualisation, where a calming voice helps you visualise and focus on a relaxation exercise in your mind’s eye – it’s a kind of mild self-hypnosis. The free app offers two exercises specific to relaxation, the paid app adds a third tense-then-relax version for those who have difficulty simply relaxing. The app also offers relaxing sounds – birdsong, ocean waves, that sort of thing – which can help people fall asleep at night.
Balance & Wellbeing
Free on iOS and Android
For many people, mobile technology has made work-life balance – the idea that we need to properly prioritise our families and private lives, as well as our careers – more of a challenge than ever. It keeps us in touch and reachable in places and at times when older generations could simply let go of work and get on with life. Talk to a career coach or business psychologist, as we did for these reviews, and it is a subject that comes up a lot as employers work to improve employee engagement and happiness, and as people look for more satisfaction in their working lives.
The first step in any plan to improve work-life balance is of course to assess your current state and mindset, and this is where the Balance and Wellbeing app comes in. As an aside, it was developed by an Australian consultancy that specialises in lean manufacturing and the like, reminding us that it is essential in any business optimisation project to get the personnel – and personal – elements right, as well as the process and structure.
It takes the form of a set of 30 questions on different areas of your life, culminating in graphs that plot where and how well you are investing your energy in life, how close you are to meeting your core human needs, which it defines as the needs for personal certainty, variety, connection and significance, and how fulfilled you are in your personal, social and work environments.
This is meat and drink to anyone working in this field professionally, such as a counsellor, coach or organisational leader. The caveat is that, while anyone else can do some basic analysis, for example to see where they might be underinvesting their time, the graphs lack context – it’s one thing to know you are 65 per cent fulfilled in certainty, say, but quite another to know what that means and how to improve it. The app offers to send you a report and development plan by email, although at the time of writing the publisher was working to fix a problem with this service.
Alternatively, you could try Wolbe: Life Balance Game (free on Android), which as the name implies turns the process into a game of sorts. It includes a similar questionnaire but then challenges you to improve your results. The tips it offers for each area of need or fulfilment might sometimes seem simplistic – read a book, do something new – but too often they are things we forget about or lose sight of.
Freemium or £2.99 on Android
There are lots of apps that offer to manage your to-do list or your schedule. However, few of them also analyse how you actually spend your days, in order to help you get more done – and to get a better balance between work and personal time.
TimeTune for Android (there are broadly similar iOS apps, such as ATracker) is designed to help you track the routine tasks and activities we almost all have. You can set timers, add reminders and tags to routine activities, and once you upgrade to the £2.99 Pro version you can choose calendars from your phone and add them to the day view in the TimeTune app and widget.
The concept of routines takes a bit of time to get your head around. Yes, routines are a subset of your task list, but the app is specifically not intended to be a to-do list or calendar – you still need to organise your own priorities and so on. So why would you want to program your routines into an app? One obvious reason is to keep you on track and organised, and to make sure routine stuff doesn’t get forgotten or rushed, but another is to validate and adjust your current ideas of how you spend your days and time.
Beyond that, you can set multiple routines, overlapping or not, plus in the Pro version you can program specific routines to activate on specific dates – think about routines for things that only happen for a few days each month, or on demand. Plus of course routine is not just limited to work – there are plenty of routine activities in our home and leisure time, and they can be better organised too.