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New Guided Imagery App from UArizona Nursing Researcher to Help Reduce Stress and Anxiety of Social Isolation in Pandemic
By Lisa Padilla - Monday Sep 14, 2020
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have sheltered in place at home for months, with little access to the outdoors or the ability to engage in many activities they enjoy.

But a research team convened by a University of Arizona Health Sciences investigator has a new mobile app now available free on the Apple App Store and Google Play that offers an alternative. The team hopes it will address negative health effects of social isolation by reducing anxiety with a technique called “guided imagery,” which has been used to help people quit smoking, get into shape and manage stress.

In June, the UArizona BIO5 Institute awarded UArizona College of Nursing Associate Dean for Research Judith Gordon, PhD, a seed grant to pursue COVID-19 team projects. She and her co-principal investigator, Chris Gniady, PhD, associate professor, UArizona Department of Computer Science, received $20,360 to pursue the project, “See Me Serene,” a guided imagery mobile health (mHealth) app to decrease anxiety related to social isolation. They also are conducting a pilot study with up to 100 people who download the app and opt in as study participants to evaluate their mental and physical responses.

Dr. Gordon said the See Me Serene app went live Aug. 1 on the Apple App Store and Google Play.

“We have almost 700 downloads and 60 study participants to date. It’s very exciting,” she added. “Anyone can use the app at no cost. Those who opt into the study will complete two surveys and mail back saliva samples postage free, and receive an e-gift card.”

Visions of Beaches, Forest Trails
While social media provides connections with others, social isolation removes people from nature and the outdoors. Homebound individuals may experience higher stress and anxiety as a result. While technologies exist to offer audiovisual immersive experiences (virtual reality), they require specialized equipment and can be costly. Still, most Americans across age, race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status own smartphones with mobile apps. Dr. Gordon’s app delivers a guided imagery intervention experience at no cost.

Guided imagery uses enhanced visualization to help people deal with stressful situations, including social isolation. More than just visual images, this involves imagining sights, sounds, tastes, smells, textures and emotions that an individual feels in a particular situation. Dr. Gordon and her colleagues have used it successfully to help people make positive lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, eating healthfully and getting more exercise. It also has proven effective at helping reduce chronic pain and anxiety.

“Using a simple mHealth app to deliver guided imagery audio files will provide endless possibilities for simulating outdoor experiences for millions of Americans experiencing social isolation,” Dr. Gordon said.

The See Me Serene app allows users to select from at least 50 different audio files, each describing a different outdoor experience that offers users immersive, vivid nature experiences designed to reduce stress and anxiety related to social isolation. The app also contains links to mental health resources available anytime and anywhere in the United States.

Tracking a Biomarker for Stress
The goals of the See Me Serene research project are to pilot test the app with 100 participants representing a nationwide sample. Those who opt in to the study after downloading the app and completing a profile will provide self-report survey data and be tested for cortisol levels collected from saliva at the start and end of the study, which lasts four weeks. Cortisol is a biological marker for stress and investigators want to know how the app affects people, both mentally and physically.

“We want to see if the app makes them feel better and if it has a physical effect on their body. We know chronic stress leads to inflammation and chronic inflammation can lead to a host of physical health problems. In other words, the app aims to help people reduce mental health issues and prevent physical health issues,” Dr. Gordon said.

“Our hope is that See Me Serene will be easy to use and will help people cope with the stress and anxiety they are feeling as a result of being stuck indoors,” Dr. Gordon added. “If our pilot results are promising, we will seek funding to conduct a large-scale trial. In the meantime, the app will be free for anyone to use.”

Click here
to learn more and to download the app.

The grant for the See Me Serene app and research study was made possible with resources from the BIO5 Institute and the Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) to help UArizona researchers quickly pivot their work to address the COVID-19 pandemic in areas related to improving the health of Arizonans. TRIF, which helped launch BIO5 in 2001, continues to be a catalyst in enabling bioscience research and innovation at UArizona, where initiatives and projects carefully are chosen to align with areas of state and national needs. In nearly 20 years, TRIF has allowed more than $50 million to be invested in critical facilities and research services that UArizona leverages today to quickly respond to the pandemic.

Contributed by University of Arizona Health Sciences News