The uses and clinical implications for mood tracking apps
The link between mood and both physical and mental wellbeing is established. Positive affect has been linked to lower mortality rates, less risk of illness and injury (Pressman & Cohen, 2005), enhanced psychological wellbeing (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002) and numerous other successful outcomes (see Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). It therefore makes sense that if you’ve found yourself struggling recently, or just want to maintain your positive mood, you may decide to engage in daily mood tracking. Research suggests these most common reasons: to identify patterns in your mood either just for your own interest or to share with a healthcare professional; to learn about what factors can influence your mood; to monitor symptoms of an ongoing mental health condition; or to make changes to improve your mood based on the app provided insights (Caldeira et al., 2017). However, do these apps actually work and give either the user or the clinician the right information to maintain or improve mental wellbeing?
Based on the concepts of social media and the idea of sharing information with those in your social circles, some researchers have created apps designed purposefully to share your emotions with these groups (Gay, Pollak, Adams, & Leonard, 2011). As with most mood tracking apps, users found it helpful to have a moment to reflect on their emotions and think about how they feel. However, the most interesting outcome was that the app encouraged users to reach out to one another in order to provide social support in times of need, even to those they didn’t know. In a society where mental health is still subject to stigmatisation, could the openness and honesty inspired by a mood tracking app like this help to create a society more at ease with sharing how we feel?
Research has also demonstrated that users like being able to track and monitor their feelings to share with clinicians. Using a mood tracking app is an effective and easy way to produce a visual representation of either your current mood state or how this may have changed over time. This data can help identify a potential specific difficulty or enable tracking of any changes or improvements during or after intervention (Caldeira et al., 2017). These tools may also make it easier for individuals who are distressed, to communicate and access the help and support they need. It may be easier for example to present your GP with a graph that represents your feelings over a period of time, rather than talking through the detail, especially if opening up seems difficult.
Mood tracking can also be a beneficial tool for clinicians to support effective practice. It’s more convenient and potentially more accurate for an individual to use an app to monitor their mood rather than carrying around a paper diary. Indeed, research has suggested that live mood tracking helps to decrease the effects of recall bias (Proudfoot et al., 2010). For example, a particular app called MZ was shown to be effective in the long-term daily monitoring of mood instability and changes in those with bipolar affective disorder and emotionally unstable personality disorder (Tsanas et al., 2016). Ortiz & Grof (2016) found that frequent mood ratings can be helpful in the formulation of individualised treatment, in distinguishing between the subtypes of some mood disorders, and also in calculating the risk of recurrence. Other uses for clinicians include assessing the efficacy of a treatment both overall and for the individual (Ortiz, Bradler, Heintze, & Grof, 2016).
The area of research which remains particularly unclear is the role that app-based emotion tracking may have in improving the effects of therapy. Initial studies suggest users who are more engaged with apps designed to deliver Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with integrated mood tracking, show greater reductions in depression and anxiety. This relationship is partially mediated by the users increase in emotional self awareness (Bakker & Rickard, 2018). This is in line with feedback from users who report feeling more in control of their mood and more able to make the right decisions towards becoming a happier person (Caldeira et al., 2017). Other research suggests that such improvements are caused by an increase in coping self-efficacy reinforced by the app (Bakker & Rickard, 2018).Whilst it remains unclear which aspects of emotion tracking are most useful in improving therapeutic outcomes, it is definitely an interesting field which shows increasing promise.