New App Could Help Panic Attack Sufferers During Coronavirus Pandemic

Displaying the app are co-developers Ellen and Ryan McGinnis of the University of Vermont. PanicMechanic uses the camera on a cell phone to display the panic attack sufferer’s heart rate in real time.

For the nearly 36 million Americans who experience panic attacks, the coronavirus pandemic is a potentially significant new trigger, a recent story in the Washington Post reported.

For panic attack sufferers facing these new anxieties, there is little recourse. Medication is minimally effective and has side effects. Cognitive behavioral therapy doesn’t work for nearly two-thirds of panic sufferers. And bio-feedback, which has shown promise, is cumbersome and impractical to use outside a laboratory or clinical setting.

A new app developed by faculty at the University of Vermont, PanicMechanic, may be part of a solution. The app adapts biofeedback-like monitoring so it can be used on a mobile phone. The app can work at any time and in any location, the first technology to do so for panic.

PanicMechanic is meant to be used as a supplement to professional clinical care.

“The challenge with panic attacks is that they’re episodic,” said one of the app’s developers, Ellen McGinnis, an assistant professor at the University of Vermont’s Center for Children, Youth and Families at the University of Vermont and a trained clinical psychologist.

“That means they’re not only difficult to treat in a traditional therapy setting, because a panic attack is hard to induce, but also that the one intervention that does seem to work for people—biofeedback—isn’t available when it’s needed.”

PanicMechanic uses the camera on a cell phone to measure the body’s panic response, using an approach similar to photoplethysmography

“Activating the app, then holding your finger against the flash can give you an objective measure of your reaction to stress,” said Ryan McGinnis, assistant professor of Electrical and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Vermont, and a co-developer of the app.

The concept for the app is grounded both in decades of research showing that enabling panic sufferers to observe their body’s reaction to stress reduces panic, and in the clinical practice of Ellen McGinnis.

“I’ve used a low tech version of this technique with a dozen patients,” she said. ‘The panic attack sufferer used just a pen, paper and timer to take their own heart rate and plot it on paper during the panic attack. It was very effective in helping patients manage, take control of and overcome their panic.”

The explanation? Intervening with objective information targets a driving dynamic of panic, she says.

“Panic takes hold and you feel like you’re out of control of your body. By showing someone their patterns of physiological arousal, it helps them gain a sense of mastery over their panic response.”

The app also works because it gives the panic sufferer something to do during an episode.

“One of the worst aspects of a panic attack is that you feel helpless,” Ellen McGinnis said.

In addition to displaying an objective measure of the body’s panic response, the app also asks, in a sequence of screens, “how much sleep and exercise you’ve had, what you ate, what your anxiety level is, and if you’ve consumed drugs or alcohol,” she said.

The screens both occupy the panic sufferer and serve a useful purpose, providing data on behaviors and triggers associated with the attack that could be avoided in the future.

The app also predicts how long the panic attack will last, based on past attacks.

That’s key, Ellen McGinnis said, because one of the most frightening aspects of a panic attack is that “it seems like it will never end.”

PanicMechanic employs machine learning to make sure the data gathered by the user on heart is accurate.

“Our beta testing showed that people can’t always put their finger on their cell phone in free living settings and get an accurate reading of their heart rate,” Ryan McGinnis said. The machine learning functionality corrects for faulty finger placement. In a study that will be published later this year, Ellen and Ryan McGinnis and their collaborators demonstrate that data obtained by the app was as accurate as that obtained in a lab setting.

“PanicMechanic helps panic attack sufferers learn to understand their panic attacks,” Ellen McGinnis said. “When they do that, working in partnership with their therapist, they’ve gone a long way toward stopping them.”

The team that developed PanicMechanic includes Steve DiCristofaro of Synbrix Software, LLC., in addition to Ellen and Ryan McGinnis.

The PanicMechanic app is available at the Apple App store.

Professor Charts Digital Plan to Fight Domestic Violence

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month — 31 days of reflection brought about by years of suffering, survivorship and study that experts say still needs far more attention. Although domestic violence cases involving celebrities, politicians and professional athletes will occasionally trigger calls for action on social media and other platforms, the faces of many lesser-known cases continue to suffer in silence.

Jill Theresa Messing, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University, is working to address that silence. Reversing the negative use of technology in intimate partner violence, Messing is working to create a safe space for victims in the technology space of digital applications. She is part of a team that is developing myPlan, a new app designed to help college-age women spot the signs of an abusive relationship — and find their way out.

Highlighting the resulting impact of domestic violence on our communities, Messing recently discussed the efforts and research in play to stem the problem long described as the “quiet epidemic.”

Question: In recent years we have seen increased reports about domestic violence as a public health threat. How do we define domestic violence, and what are some examples of its impact on public health?

ASU: “Domestic violence” is the term generally used by the public and practice communities to refer to violence within intimate partnerships (e.g., people who are dating, in a relationship or have a child together). Violence is generally understood to be physical (e.g., pushing, slapping, hitting) or sexual (e.g., forcing a partner into sexual activity with violence or threats).

Professor Jill Messing

Other abusive actions such aname-callingng, put-downs, harassment, stalking, control, jealousy, financial abuse, threats and other behaviors are also considered domestic violence. In the research literature, this form of violence or abuse is often termed gender-based violence or intimate-partner violence.

Intimate-partner violence disproportionately affects women and can lead to physical- and mental-health consequences. In addition to injury that results from violence, intimate-partner violence leads to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance misuse and other negative outcomes. In the most extreme cases, intimate-partner violence escalates to homicide.

Knowing what a healthy relationship looks like is just as important as being able to recognize red flags for abuse. Healthy relationships include mutual respect, safety, open and honest communication, compromise, equality, independence, freedom, support and privacy. Everyone deserves to be in a healthy and safe relationship.

Q: Despite an increase in education and resources for domestic violence, there still seems to be a reluctance on the part of others to get involved or reach out to those who they suspect of being abused. What is the most important thing a person can do if they suspect abuse?

ASU: Friends are often the first to know about abuse. The most important thing that someone can do if they suspect that a friend is being abused is to talk to their friend in a kind, non-judgmental manner. Many people who are being abused would like to talk about it but are scared. Listening to your friend, being supportive, and not telling her/him what to do can be very effective. Ask your friend what you can do to help.

Starting in 2018, ASU’s School of Social Work will also begin offering new degree programs to better educate and equip students with the tools they need to spot and stop domestic violence. Coursework will include focus on technology-based abuse, intimate-partner violence risk assessment, teen dating violence, violence against women in the global context, and the domestic violence social movement. The courses will be offered as part of undergraduate and graduate certificates in domestic violence.

Q: We have heard some of the ways technology has enabled domestic violence (harassment, stalking, etc.), but how is it also playing a role in addressing the issue?

ASU: Technology is an important tool for education and can connect people to helpful community-based resources. I have partnered with colleagues at Johns Hopkins University to develop the myPlan app. Because women are more likely than men to be abused, to suffer injuries due to violence and to be killed by intimate partners, myPlan is for female-identifying students who are in a relationship with a male or female partner.

The app provides the user with a private, safe and non-judgmental space to consider their values and to weigh the risks and benefits of their relationship. It’s tailored to each person’s unique situation and provides a safety plan as well as free and often confidential resources. MyPlan is available for iPhone and Android devices and is completely free. There is also a version for friends. If you think a friend is being abused, myPlan can provide help and advice specific to your friend’s situation. Visit myPlanApp.org to learn more.

Unfortunately, technology is often used to abuse, harass or stalk someone in an abusive relationship, and technology safety is an important aspect of staying safe. The National Network to End Domestic Violence has information about staying safe online. There are also confidential and even anonymous resources like the National Domestic Violence Hotline and Love is Respect that can help.

Q: What is new research telling us about domestic violence?

ASU: Much of my research focuses on the development and use of risk-assessment instruments that provide information about the danger that an abuser poses for a domestic violence victim. Risk assessments can be used for women to assess their own danger or a friend’s danger, or they can be used by practitioners who work with victims or offenders for safety planning. The criminal justice system is increasingly using risk assessments to make determinations about whether a domestic violence offender should be released on bond or the conditions of that release. Some of my current research is developing culturally competent adaptations of a risk assessment for immigrant, refugee and Native American victims of intimate-partner violence.

At ASU, we are also learning from students who are placed in domestic violence agencies across Arizona through our AmeriCorps internship program. Since 2015, 149 AmeriCorps members from various disciplines have volunteered more than 72,000 hours serving vulnerable survivors of domestic violence and their families. The students are getting an opportunity to learn more about domestic violence through hands-on experience while earning a stipend and education credit that they can put toward future tuition or student loans. Members have already earned more than $409,000 in scholarships and educational awards through the AmeriCorps program.

Best Mood Charting Apps for Apple and Android

Frequently, therapists request clients to record their behaviors, triggers, and symptoms to help them become more aware of their reactions. These can include energy levels, medication taken, number of hours slept, anger outbursts, alcohol consumption, negative thoughts, etc.

Traditionally, this has been accomplished with notepad and pen, but it has proven to have low adherence rates to the regime and clients often have difficulty recalling the week in their therapy session. Self-monitoring “provides clinicians with a more contextualized understanding of patients’ struggles and an opportunity to tailor treatment accordingly.” Digital mood monitoring with smart phone apps offers a reliable and easy way for clients to track their symptoms themselves.

Since I’m cheap and I know you and your clients often are too, I chose to only review apps that are free. Here are the top 3 apps that showed the most promise reviewed from best to last.

T2 Mood Tracker 

Available in Google Play Store and Apple App Store for free

t2

 

T2 Mood Tracker was created by the National Center for Telehealth and Technology, and it is a very straight forward app. There are 6 categories that can be visible or hidden – anxiety, depression, general well-being, head injury, post-traumatic stress, and stress – with 10 anchors on sliders for each. Results are graphed on a simple line graph and reports can be created in PDF and CSV format as well as emailed straight from the app. A PIN can be added for security and a reminder can be set for 3 specific times during the day. I couldn’t figure out how to access notes or add/edit rating categories.

It is very straight forward and the email option as well as the well-informed anchors on each category look like it would be an excellent tool for therapists.

Personal Progress Tracker 

Available in Google Play Store and Apple App Store (as PTracker) for free

soundmindz

 

Progress Tracker must be registered online before using. In this account, you can add lots of info about yourself as well as access various other resources. This app is extremely comprehensive. The Symptoms tab gives prompts for all major symptoms of the following diagnoses: OCD, anxiety/panic disorders, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, addiction/substance abuse, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, eating disorders, and insomnia. When a symptom is clicked it asks the user to give a rating (scales change from yes/no, number, low to high, etc) for the day as well as add optional notes. The user can add a custom symptom (“Custom Activity”), define the rating type, and under what category it goes.

The Activities tab allows for tracking of a number of things associated with mental health including medication taken, hours slept, stress level, exercise, drug and alcohol use, etc. There is, again, a place to add a custom section. The Reports tab allows for a variety of ways to run data. A detailed report gives all reported symptoms and activities for each day,. A summary report gives some basic statistics over a period of time, and you can also choose one symptom to focus on to see its change over time. Everything can be accessed and manipulated online and reports can be printed from there. Users can assign therapists who can access client reports online.

There are a few typos through the app, there is no way of sending reports from the phone but must be done from the computer, there is no reminder setting or security settings, which are big downfalls. It’s extremely comprehensive, which would be wonderfully helpful if the client were to fill it out completely, but I fear that many would be daunted by the enormity of it all and there is no way to hide unwanted categories.

ToadKing Mood Tracker

Available in Google Play Store for free

toadking

 

ToadKing is fantastically versatile. There is nothing preset, but the user must go into Edit Markers to create symptom, mood, activity, etc, categories. Once these are created (with the assistance of the user’s therapist, if applicable), data can be input on a 0-10 scale and notes can be added. Backlogs or editing previous days can be done with Modify Data. View History allows the user to generate text, line graph, or bar graph of individual markers for a month. From this screen the data can be emailed (or shared in any medium actually). Share Data on the main screen generates the chosen form and groups the text or graph images for each marker into a zip file when emailed.

This app requires the user (or therapist) to set it up before use, it doesn’t have a reminder or security features, and I would prefer if there were a way to change the rating type. However, it’s extremely versatile and so simple, making it easy to use.

Voter Suppression? We’ve Got An App For That

Election-Collection-Screenshots

These days it seems like there’s an app for everything. If I can map my daily jog, surely I should be able to use this new technology for a greater good. With this in mind, we set about designing an app that would use mobile technology to help prevent and document incidents of voter suppression. Southern Coalition for Social Justice has launched Election Collection, a data gathering initiative that uses a location-based mobile data collection app to document, track, and rapidly respond to voting irregularities and instances of voter suppression at polling places nationwide for the 2014 General Election.

The app’s design was guided by community geography principles and is directly informed by the array of needs communicated by litigators, organizers and researchers in attendance at the inaugural convening of the Southern Leaders for Voter Engagement in May of this year.Election Collection is a free app designed to help voting rights advocates record instances of voter suppression for use by election protection volunteers as well as voting rights litigators, social scientists, and other voting rights advocates.

This app allows users to nimbly relay the status of Election Day events in real time to both in-house legal response teams and to fellow volunteers on the ground. On Election Day, trained volunteers will be able to log in to personalized accounts and record incidents of voter suppression using its listed forms. The intuitive app is easy to navigate as it follows a simple design that should be familiar to those who have ever filled out a form on a website.

Volunteers can select from a wide range of text fields, drop-down menus, multiple-selection buttons, and photo and audio file attachments to relate a highly accurate and comprehensive account of voter suppression events.
SCSJ, in cooperation with several partner groups, is leading ongoing training sessions for teams of Election Collection volunteers to use the mobile app to gather information from voters on-site at polling locations nationwide.

Each time the app is used to record a voter contact, it will upload immediately to the Election Collection cloud database and mapping service, where it will then be relayed to or conveniently accessed by remote teams of legal monitors at different locations throughout the country. From there, attorneys can effectively respond to voter problems as they arise using the desktop interface in either a map or spreadsheet view. Polling place monitors can similarly view an up-to-the-minute map of recorded incident reports on their smartphones using the mobile app.

The Election Collection app was designed by a community-based activist and researcher in collaboration with organizers, policy analysts, litigators, IT entrepreneurs, and mobile GIS industry specialists. These participatory and multidisciplinary roots account for its characteristic flexibility in form and function. The app is intended to record not only general data that national voting rights advocates, researchers and litigators might desire, but also such information that voting rights advocates at the state and local levels have identified as being critically important to protecting voting rights in their respective areas of operation.

Generally, the app collects data in several categories: voter information, wait time, ability to vote (regular ballot, provisional ballot, no ballot), types of voter problems encountered (voter registration problems, identification problems, etc…), witness information, and media attachment or documentation. It is also configured to support tailored forms to gather data related to state- or locally- specific policies or practices that impede a voter’s access to the ballot.

Election Day collection is designed for two audiences: (1) volunteers in the field, who will have simple interfaces that work across platform and device; (2) back-end users (litigation, policy, research), where immediate voter problems are flagged and routed in real time to attorneys.

Individuals or organizations interested in downloading the app and participating in Election Collection, please contact Sarah Moncelle sarah@scsj.org. Not able to use the app on election day but still want to help? Learn more about the project here.

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