Apps That Got Me Through School | MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds

Apps That Got Me Through School

3 teenagers studying while 1 is on their phone


Posted in: Parenting Concerns, Teenagers, You & Your Family, Young Adults

Topics: Culture + Society

Like many millennials, I consider myself an early adopter of new technology. I happen to own an iPhone, so I find myself pleasantly scrolling through the “Today” column on the Apple App Store. I am constantly mesmerized by the listing of new apps, their functional features, and the colorful images used to put them on display. Recently, I stumbled upon the featured app Moodnotes, a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) app and mood journal. The app soon made its way to the “Top Paid” section and I was thrilled! Mental health technology was finally being put on a pedestal, right there next to Facebook and Snapchat.

In addition to traditional therapy sessions, I’ve been using mental health and mindfulness apps throughout undergraduate and graduate school. As a student, I’ve experienced many highs and many lows. Let’s face it – while higher education can be rewarding, it can also feel chaotic. As the “College Life” triangle assumes, juggling 1) academics, 2) friends, and 3) sleep is no easy feat. Developmental studies on adolescence attest to the difficulties of transition periods like moving away from home, living on your own, and navigating the college social scene. For myself, moving from Raleigh, NC to Boston and not knowing a single soul at my new school was a huge transition. I realized that accessing the right forms of support would help alleviate my anxieties.

I got through much of these stressors with the help of some great apps. These days, there are dozens upon dozens of digital tools addressing mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. CBT journals, mindfulness tools, and teletherapy. As a public health student, I believe that these apps increase accessibility and convenience for individuals who either cannot afford or reach in-person professional treatment, or want to supplement professional treatment with additional resources. I’m still a huge proponent of seeking help from a mental health clinician, and many college campuses across the country have counseling centers with professionals who can help. But for me, it also helps to have other easy-to-access outlets. Anywhere I go, in any situation that I might experience, I know that these tools will be right in my back pocket.

As I finish up graduate school and reflect upon my educational experiences, I want to share three apps that have helped me decode my thoughts, understand the importance of self-care, and improve my focus and concentration. While these tools worked for me, they might not work for everyone.

Moodnotes ($3.99) / iPhone

Screen shot from the Mood Notes app

Moodnotes was developed by clinical psychologists, Drs. Edrick Dorian and Drew Erhardt, as a cognitive behavioral therapy mood journal. Upon opening the app, you’re greeted by a face with an adjustable mouth. Happy? Turn it into a smile. Not so happy? Maybe a frown. Somewhere in between? No worries. Next, you are led through a few pages to explain your emotions, prompted to reframe your thinking, and introduced to the thinking patterns you are most likely experiencing. For me, naming these thinking traps is incredibly empowering. I’m now able to look back and say, “that weird feeling that I get – that’s called ‘all or nothing thinking,’ and now that I know what it’s called, I can read more about it and find ways to manage this pattern.” The app itself suggests ways to improve certain thinking traps so you’re not left wondering what to do with your thoughts.

If you’re looking for data, Moodnotes tracks your emotions and thinking patterns over time. You are given the total number of entries completed and a ranking of the “Top 5 Thinking Traps” based on those entries. The end results are easy-to-read trends in the form of bar graphs and pie charts, which can be useful to reference or even share with a mental health professional.

Why did I choose this CBT app rather than one of the others? I’m a big fan of simple, clean-looking apps. Moodnotes is user-friendly and easy on the eyes. The soft, pastel colors and effortless usability immediately put me at ease.

SuperBetter (Free) / iPhone and Android

Students sometimes lose confidence in their ability to understand a topic or excel in a class. Low levels of self-efficacy are common among college students. Game designer, Jane McGonigal, created the app SuperBetter after suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. McGonigal believed in the benefits of “gamification” and created SuperBetter to help others living with depression. Gamification uses the power of “game design elements in non-game contexts,” such as mental and behavioral health technology. Apps that promote behavior change through gamification have higher rates of retention, particularly if these technologies encourage individuals to set goals and create steps towards those goals in an engaging way.

When starting SuperBetter, you need to create a secret identity. SuperBetter then prompts you to choose your challenge, whether it’s anxiety or depression or poor sleep. There are three categories that fall under “To Do Today,” including ‘Activate 3 Power-Ups,’ ‘Battle 1 Bad Guy,’ and ‘Do 3 Quests.’ Walk around the block, give yourself a hug, and chat with a friend to achieve all three power-ups. Defeating the bad guy at least once a day can be done by performing some form of self-care, like exercising or flossing your teeth. Lastly, users are encouraged to complete three quests which are actionable steps towards individual goals.

Whether it’s studying for a test or finishing up homework, self-care can fall by the wayside. But you don’t have to sacrifice your well-being for a good grade. For me, the little things can make all the difference. By drinking that extra glass of water or taking a brief walk in between assignments, I feel like I have made a personal accomplishment. Oftentimes, performing self-care gives me the push that I need to finish strong.

Simple Habit (Free) / iPhone and Android

At the beginning of my undergraduate career, I was very skeptical of mindfulness apps.

“I don’t have time to meditate! I have so much to do. I don’t think I’d be able to meditate even if I wanted to — it’s impossible to not think about anything!”

Simple Habit teacher, Oren J. Sofer, says, “Our minds are designed to think just like our ears are designed to hear.” In other words, there is nothing wrong with thinking while meditating. But mindfulness goes beyond recognizing our fleeting thoughts – being mindful combines focus and relaxation to improve mental strength.

Simple Habit is one tool that is gaining traction as a mindfulness app. The app caters to a variety of goals, from improving sleep to strengthening focus. Lately, I’ve been trying to improve my focus, especially during midterms and entering finals season. Sometimes if I’m nervous about an assignment or unsure of where to start, I tend to procrastinate. I’ve listened to the “Improve Focus” session, which includes techniques on strengthening concentration. In one of several exercises, Sofer encourages listeners to concentrate on the transition between breaths as a way of improving focus. If a thought pops up, let it go and try again, paying attention to the passage between breaths. I have noticed that I am better equipped to address distracting thoughts after listening to this session. The practice of letting go is especially helpful during high-stress times like finals week. Meeting my thoughts with awareness and forgiveness rather than stress helps me stay on track with studying.

Students can also benefit from sessions related to sleep improvement and stress reduction. Through simple meditation, I’ve learned to appreciate the power of balance. I’ve also learned that strength and clarity are born during these moments of stillness. Looking back, I wish I had introduced meditation into my daily life sooner. Not having time to meditate is a great reason to start. If you have five minutes to spare in between classes or while taking a study break, you have time for some self-care. Regardless of what your day-to-day looks like, we all deserve a little stillness in our lives.

So, whether you’re in your first year of school, or on the cusp of graduation, know that the road ahead can have its challenges. Change and transition require adjustment, and finding the proper tools to support your mental health is crucial. Surrounding yourself with the right people, the right resources, and even the right apps can go a long way.

Thanks for visiting the Clay Center. We are entirely funded by visitors like you. We receive no financial support from Massachusetts General Hospital or Harvard Medical School. Your support of our work helps us to continue to produce content on mental health topics that support the emotional well-being of young people everywhere.

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Shahd Husein

Shahd Husein

Shahd Husein is the editorial assistant for The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds. She is currently working toward her Master of Public Health (MPH) at Tufts University School of Medicine, and previ...