Just in time for holiday stress: Mental health apps grow in popularity

Published: Nov. 21, 2018 at 5:51 PM CST
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As we gear up for Thanksgiving, it's no secret many of us can become overwhelmed with the stress of the holiday season. And now, mental health apps are growing in popularity. But experts say, when choosing the right app for you: proceed with caution.

Donna Quast is visiting relatives here in Fargo for the holidays from Hazen, N.D. She says ever since retiring from work, she’s become much less stressed this time of year. We caught her resting her feet from a hectic holiday shopping spree with her husband at West Acres Mall.

"Beginning right after Thanksgiving,” she said, “you're thinking about your baking, you’re thinking about making a list of everybody you have to shop it's a lot."

Right around this time, folks are getting into the holiday spirit—and many are getting stressed. Jennifer Illich directs FirstLink’s helpline operations here in Fargo. FirstLink is a nonprofit resource which Illich says is available to the community 24-7—even through the holidays.

"The holidays bring out stress or mental health in all of us...holidays can be a financial burden as well," Illich said.

Meanwhile, Fargo shopper, Hao Nguyen, says as a data analyst, he’s able to stay calm through the holidays.

"The holidays I can imagine stress a lot of people out,” he said, “but it kind of comes down to how you compartmentalize it.”

And some are doing just that—with the help of technology.

"Health apps are among the fastest-growing areas,” Dr. Niranjan Karnik, associate dean for Community Behavioral Health and Innovation at Rush University, said. “...the challenge is, which ones really work?"

"I think there's a lot of great apps out there,” Illich said, “just something you can just take some time to play around and find some. Some of course cost money and there's a lot of great free apps out there."

Illich says she likes an app called "MY3," which quickly links you to your top three caregivers or supporters.

"So if we're feeling down or isolated and lonely,” she said, “it's those three people you can call."

The app also has a direct button to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Illich says she also likes the Virtual Hope Box app. It comes with four separate tools at your fingertips.

"A ‘Distract Me,’ ‘Inspire Me,’ ‘Relax Me’ and ‘Coping Tools.’ And it's really easy and user-friendly to look at," Illich said.

But Dr. Stephen Schueller, an assistant professor of psychological science at the University of California at Irvine, says not all apps are constructive:

"There was an app for bipolar disorder,” he said, “which instructed people if they were having a manic episode to take a shot of hard alcohol. This is terrible advice."

Dr. Schueller, in partnership with his former employer, Northwestern, helped create the Psyberguide, a system that rates mental health apps based on credibility, user experience and transparency.

Illich says it’s important to stay away from apps that create negative coping skills.

"There's always positive coping skills and ways to get through a crisis, but there's also negative coping skills,” Illich said. “Like maybe spending too much money over your budget, drinking alcohol, using drugs. If the app you're using is leaning toward the negative coping skills, then you want to stay away from those apps."

And while the apps are available 24-7, Illich warns not to isolate yourself with them.

"Reach out to family, friends that help you get through a crisis or a stressful time in your life," she said.

And in times of crisis, first seek out professional help.

For mental health services, head to Firstlink’s website:

Click on Mental Health Services.

And here’s some more tips from Sanford Health:

Help for the Holiday Blues:,2094

• If you have the holiday blues, try these tips:

o Have a heart-to-heart with a friend.

o Limit alcohol intake.

o Stick within your normal routine as much as you can.

o Set a realistic budget and then stick to it.

o Set realistic goals and expectations.

o Do not label the season as a time to cure past problems.

o Don’t be afraid to say no. That means don’t go to parties when you don’t really have time. Don’t take on events that will crowd your time. Don’t overextend yourself.

o Find time for yourself.

o Enjoy free holiday activities.

o Try to celebrate the holidays in a different way.

Start some healthy holiday traditions:,346

December can be stressful. It often brings, extra social and financial obligations. It can cause a breakdown of healthy eating and exercise habits. It can also leave you feeling lonely or depressed. But you and your family can adopt some new traditions that may help ease the season's stress and make your holidays healthy and happy.

Your physical health

When the holidays become more than you bargained for, your health can be compromised. And stress can put extra demands on your body. Here are some tips on keeping up your health during the holiday season:

• Don't do too much. Give yourself some time to relax.

• Share the workload. Let everyone play an active role. Make the holidays a family affair so you're not burdened with all the work.

• Set priorities. You can't do everything. Say no to some of the demands on your time.

• Simplify your life. Be less elaborate this year. Relax your housekeeping and holiday preparations.

• Continue to exercise. Don't let your regular routine lapse.

• Eat healthy foods. Limit your consumption of high-fat holiday treats. Serve healthy fare at your family's holiday party.

Your emotional health

It's easy to become overwrought this time of year, especially if you believe something is lacking in your holiday celebration. Here are some ways to create new holiday traditions that will help level your emotions:

• Ask yourself if you really enjoy all the rituals. Perhaps they have merely become habits. Try choosing less elaborate traditions of holidays past.

• Don't be afraid to scale down gift giving. You'll probably get a lot of support.

• If your yearly party is too much to handle, put it off until after the holidays. This will give you more time to prepare. It will also help ease post-holiday letdown by giving you something fun to look forward to.

• If you can’t be with your family, get out around people. Plan to be with friends or volunteer to help others who also may be separated from their families.

Feeling sad? Here’s how to beat the holiday blues:,728941

• Be mindful about how you are feeling. Holidays can trigger sad memories and may always be tinged with sadness if you have lost a loved one. Even if you are not in the mood to be festive, try to engage in other activities, and spend time with friends.

• At family gatherings, avoid politics and other controversial topics that could stir up negative feelings.

• Try to see people in person or talk to them on the phone, rather than using social media.

• Get enough sleep and eat and drink in moderation.

• Consider volunteering. Doing something for others who are less fortunate will keep things in perspective and give you a sense of purpose.