APPLETON — Doing regular mindfulness exercises on a mobile app helped a group of Fox Valley teens banish stubborn negative thoughts, according to new research from a Lawrence University professor.
The findings add to a field with little prior examination and may help shed light on the kinds of tools that help teens feel better, said Lori Hilt, an associate professor of psychology at Lawrence who led the study.
“We don’t have a lot of research on mindfulness interventions for children, especially mobile apps,” Hilt said. “So I think this study is really important as a kind of proof of concept that these things can work.”
The study took place over three years, partly funded by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, and involved more than 150 local young people between the ages of 12 and 15.
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Participants were asked to use the app to track their mood three times a day for three weeks. Members of the experimental group were also guided through techniques to help them relax and focus on the present moment, such as breathing exercises.
At three weeks, six weeks, 12 weeks, and six months, they and their parents completed a questionnaire about how they felt. Hilt said it was optional for them to continue using the app after three weeks.
Children who used the version of the app with mindfulness exercises reported significant reductions in rumination – a fixation on negative things happening to them or around them – over the three weeks and up. six weeks after, Hilt said.
They also reported a reduction in worry — a negative, future-focused thought pattern — that lasted six months, she said, as well as some reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Participants in the control group did not report reductions in rumination, worry, symptoms of depression, or symptoms of anxiety.
Gwendolyn Bowmann and her daughter Evelyn were among the study participants. Bowmann told The Post-Crescent that she knows how important mindfulness can be for managing stress because she took a course on it as part of her work as a teacher with the New York School District. Appleton area, as well as doing research in his time.
She said her daughter was not very stressed when she got involved in the study at the age of 12 and 13, but she knew it could increase as she continued her studies. and in adulthood.
For Evelyn, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was more calm than stressful, but as it continued, she found it helpful to have mindfulness techniques available to her.
“I definitely found this summer when everything got a little crazy, if I ever needed to ground myself or calm down, it helped me to use this app,” she said.
Now a sophomore at Appleton North High School, Evelyn still uses some of the techniques she learned. There were different time increments and a variety of techniques, but Evelyn’s favorites required her to focus on the sounds around her.
Hilt said she focuses most of her research on adolescents between the ages of 10 and 14, because symptoms of depression and anxiety tend to appear around age 15, and she wants to understand what measures can be taken in advance to prevent these developments. This study opens the door to many more research questions, she said.
How long might the decrease in rumination last if a teenager used it for more than three weeks, for example? How long would they need the app’s guidance before mindfulness becomes a habit? Does mood tracking – the constant piece between the two groups – have its own role to play in decreasing depression and anxiety?
She has already embarked on other research, this time a five-year study based at Harvard University’s McLean Hospital. Teens in this study will use Headspace, a popular meditation app, to practice mindfulness, and Hilt will also examine brain imaging to determine if reductions in rumination are related to changes in brain networks.
When the time comes, she will also be eager to offer her app – designed by a computer science student at Lawrence – to people who can get it into the hands of young people, especially in more rural areas where a downloadable app may be easier. accessible than more traditional mental health resources.
But first, Hilt said she wanted to implement some suggestions for improvement made by parents and children.
Bowmann and Evelyn said they were happy with the study design. Between well-timed reminders and a small financial compensation, Bowmann said she felt the study was well-organized and designed for young people to complete.
Evelyn said she liked that there were different time slots for the activities so she could do a quick three-minute session or dedicate more time to it if she wanted.
While there are hundreds of mindfulness apps available, few have been tested, Hilt said, and those that have undergone testing typically use small adult studies.
Ideally, she says, more researchers would partner with the companies building the apps to ensure they get the desired results for young people.