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Review by expert Jason Moehringer, PsyD

Pros

  • Provides extensive CBT-based education on a variety of topics related to panic and anxiety
  • Guides users through a variety of relaxation and mindfulness exercises, including one for help during panic attacks
  • “Cognitive Diary” helps users identify triggers for anxiety/panic and change the related errors in thinking
  • Most information presented in both text and audio formats
  • Free to download and access does not require a subscription
  • Various customizable options, including visual and security/privacy features

Cons

  • CBT concepts do not always reflect expert consensus
  • Interface is not optimized for small screens and can be difficult to navigate
  • App incorporates limited interactivity and is not very engaging
  • Many features require streaming internet access
  • AchieveMint feature is essentially nonfunctional

Description

Stop Panic and Anxiety Self-Help is an Android™ app for use with version 2.3 and later. The app was created by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D., a clinical and sports psychologist, d/b/a Excel At Life. The app includes numerous articles containing information about anxiety and panic, their effects on the body, potential causes, and various coping strategies. Other articles provide detailed advice for identifying and changing flawed thought patterns that contribute to anxiety and panic disorders. However, the amount of information is extreme and potentially overwhelming, and it requires a substantial time commitment in order to simply make it through the material.

Many of the informational articles are available in both text and audio formats, although the audio files require streaming internet access. In addition to information, the app contains several guided relaxation exercises (these are exclusively audio files), including mindful meditation, controlled breathing, and crisis management. These are intended to help users learn and practice simple techniques that can help reduce the impact of anxiety. Users have unlimited access to these tools and can listen to them as many times as needed.

The app also includes the “Cognitive Diary,” which guides users through a process known as “cognitive restructuring.” Cognitive restructuring is a core skill taught in cognitive behavioral therapy and can be helpful in identifying problematic thought patterns and replacing them with healthier alternatives. However, the Diary is almost entirely user-directed, with most interaction involving open-ended prompts – for example, typing a problematic thought from earlier in the day. While the Cognitive Diary comes preloaded with lists of thought distortions and healthier alternatives, this feature can be difficult to use because of its extreme length and the sheer number of choices.

Finally, the app states in multiple locations that it partners with a company called AchieveMint for the purpose of offering “cash rewards for engaging in the CBT activities” included in the app. The developer is careful to note in each case that it is not directly affiliated with AchieveMint, does not have control over data sent to AchieveMint, and is not responsible for negative outcomes stemming from any interactions with AchieveMint. Additionally, brief research into the AchieveMint program indicates that they are not accepting new members. As a result, this feature of the app is nonfunctional, and users should always be cautious about submitting personal information to third-party organizations.

Security/Privacy/Data Sharing

The app was first launched in March 2011 and the current version (4.1.1) was launched in April 2015. The app has a clearly described privacy policy in which it is stated that only basic usage information is collected by the app for the purposes of making improvements, that any personal information is not shared with third parties (except AchieveMint for those who may have been able to opt-in at an earlier date), and that the only geo-location data collected is country of residence. It is also stated that the Google Backup Service is utilized by the app so that users can save their entries in the Cognitive Diary, but that it cannot be guaranteed that this information will be maintained by Google and that this information may be subject to use by Google. No other disclosed information sharing or data gathering functions are included in the app.

Ease of Use and User Experience

The app utilizes cool, pleasant colors and obvious care has been taken to make it as enjoyable as possible for users given the limitations of the developer. Having said that, the user experience suffers significantly from the old-fashioned and unintuitive interface. Users who have difficulty reading or sustaining attention, or who have problems with extended use of screens, may be frustrated by the primarily text-based presentation of the information in the app. There are also few interactive, so users may find it hard to engage with the app over the long-term course of any anxiety- or panic-related that they may have.

Scientific Basis

The app bases its educational materials, guided practice exercises, and therapeutic recommendations on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is a well-researched category of treatments for depression. The articles also include specific citations for a number of the claims or statements made. This is an important feature and lends credence to the educational component of the app. Unfortunately, this app itself has not been studied in clinical trials or compared to other eMental Health programs.

Cost

The app is free to download and use, and no restrictions are placed on the user or any of the app’s features. No subscription is ever required.

Overall

This app is likely to increase awareness of the issues involved in living with anxiety and/or panic, and has some very helpful information and suggestions for individuals who are trying to cope with related symptoms. It is free to use, and therefore accessible to anyone with a smartphone. However, it presents a wealth of information that can be overwhelming as it could take hours (or several days for slow readers) for users to make it through all of the material. It also has only very limited interactive components and the interface is old-fashioned and difficult to use. Therefore, while it may be a reasonable source of information and practice in potentially useful CBT skills, it is unlikely to engage users and should not be the primary method for treating anxiety or panic disorders for any person.

Review date:  February 2016

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