Bonnie Cha

Serenity Now: Apps to Help Manage Your Stress and Mood

When people ask me how I’m doing, my standard answer is “I’m fine,” or “Doing well, thanks.” But sometimes I’m lying straight to their face.

As anyone knows, life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I stress about work. I fret about money. I worry about my family. The list goes on. And though I try to relieve some of the frustration by going for a run or heading to the beach, I’m not so good about actually dealing with my feelings. Instead, I just internalize everything until it culminates to a breaking point, like this weekend, when a broken picture frame led to an epic meltdown. It wasn’t a pretty scene, people.

Knowing that this isn’t a healthy way to deal with things, I tried out two smartphone apps, Senti and Stress Tracker, which are designed to help keep tabs on your mood.

Unlike the stress-monitoring tools Tinké and HeartMath Inner Balance Sensor, which my colleague Katie Boehret reviewed a few weeks ago, the two mobile apps are free, and don’t require an extra piece of hardware for your smartphone. They also don’t measure your heart rate to calculate stress levels. Rather, the apps require you to tell them how you’re feeling.

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By taking a more active approach, both companies hope that their apps will help people better understand what causes them stress, so they can do something about it. In the week that I’ve been using the apps, I can’t say either one significantly reduced any stress in my life. But the simple exercise of logging how I was feeling was pretty insightful, and I even learned a couple of relaxation exercises. Of the two, Stress Tracker was more helpful.

Stress Tracker is available for iOS devices, and there’s also a Web app. It allows you to rate your stress on a sliding scale of one to 10, with one being relaxed and 10 being super-stressed. After you’ve selected your stress level, you can add it to your daily diary with a single tap of a button, and then add more details about what’s affecting your mood.

For example, the app provides fields for selecting sources of stress, stress symptoms and lifestyle habits. You can also select from a group of emoticons to express your current mood and add personal notes, so you have a record of how you were feeling that day and what contributed to your mood. There is no limit to the number of entries you can make in a day.

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Since your day can get hectic, I recommend setting up reminders to add your details to Stress Tracker, which you can do through the app’s Settings menu. I set them for 9 am, noon, 6 pm and 9 pm. Strangely, the alerts always came a few minutes after the actual times.

Still, this exercise was useful in a couple of ways. For one, it actually made me stop and think about how I was feeling and how it was affecting my mental and physical being. And, by doing so, it also gave me an opportunity to do something about it.

Using the History and Insights section of the app, I could see that my top sources of stress were work- and money-related, which manifested in muscular, cognitive and emotional symptoms.

Stress Tracker provides a pretty good Advice section, where you can read up on some tips for relieving stress. It offers basic tips like going for a short walk or taking deep breaths, and also breaks it down by source, symptoms and action plan. There’s also the option to buy relaxation exercises and rage-control programs from within the app.

Since I tend to hold a lot of my stress in my shoulders and neck, I bought the Progressive Muscle Relaxation program for 99 cents. To be honest, the woman’s voice creeped me out, but once I got past that, the exercises, which included making and releasing a fist, were actually helpful. One thing I noticed, though, is that if you have your iPhone set to auto-lock after a certain number of minutes, the exercises will suspend once the screen turns off, so I had to set my phone to not automatically turn off the screen while doing these exercises.

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Senti is currently only available for iOS, but an Android version is in the works. The app takes a different approach than Stress Tracker. Rather than measuring stress, the app asks you various questions throughout the day to help gauge your mood, such as “How does today compare to most?”

From the Settings menu, you can specify how many questions the app sends you (the maximum is 10 per day), and when you’ll receive these questions. But the timing of the questions is mostly random. Sometimes I’d get two questions within half an hour of each other, and sometimes a few hours would go by before I got the next query. One thing I recommend is allowing push notifications when you first install the app, because otherwise the onus is on you to remember to engage with the app.

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Like Stress Tracker, Senti was helpful in that it made me stop and think about myself for once. In some ways, Senti was even more thought-provoking than Stress Tracker. For example, I got a question that asked, “To get to where I am today, I had to give up ___.” It’s something that I’ve never really considered, and it forced me to think about an answer (though you can skip a question, too). In this way, I felt like Senti was more a digital diary than a stress reliever, which is useful in its own right.

The app allows you to see your full history of moods in bar graph form, so you can keep track of how you’re doing and compare it to other days. That said, I wish there were a way to view how you answered questions for each day, so you could see if you might answer differently on another day. The company told me it is working on adding this feature in the future, as well as giving users more control over question topics and timing.

It’s easy to get caught up in the chaos of a day, but it’s also okay to take some time for yourself. Whether you need to express how you’re feeling at the moment or need a stress break, Senti and Stress Tracker are easy and free ways to do this.


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