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Mobile app may offer hope in times of distress

Image of man holding cell phone A user navigates to Virtual Hope Box, a Defense Health Agency mobile app that aims to decrease the experience of distress by facilitating healthy coping and emotion regulation skills. (Image courtesy of DHA)

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In the face of a global pandemic, individuals are connecting even more so through their smartphones. A mobile app on their device may offer a way for the military community to cope with the changes to their daily lives brought on by COVID-19 – and in the future the challenges of military life.

“Right now we’re all experiencing the uncertainty of COVID-19; we’re stuck in the house; we’re facing so many constraints that we’re not used to. So, we may be feeling a lot of distress,” said Kelly Blasko, counseling psychologist and mHealth clinical integration lead at DHA’s Connected Health branch. “Some of the distress you might feel may cause an increase in anxiety, changes in mood, and negative thinking.”

Virtual Hope Box is one mobile app solution that may help individuals cope. The award-winning app provides users with an opportunity to manage distress in a personalized and immediately accessible way. The app, in conjunction with mental health professional guidance, can help maintain one’s health and wellbeing.

“Virtual Hope Box is a mobile tool that may help you develop positive coping skills,” Blasko explained.

The app is modeled after the concept of a traditional hope box, where one might collect physical items that are meaningful and would bring up positive thoughts.

“You can’t carry a box everywhere; with Virtual Hope Box, the same resources are at your fingertips, virtually on your phone,” Blasko said.

Patients can use the VHB to store a variety of rich multimedia content that they find personally supportive in times of need.

“And in times of social distancing, Virtual Hope Box offers a way to maintain connection to the important things in one’s life, without interacting physically with others,” she added.

Virtual Hope Box was designed to decrease the experience of distress by facilitating healthy coping and emotion regulation skills.

The app is divided into sections – Remind Me, Distract Me, Inspire Me, Relax Me, Coping Tools and Support Contacts. Through these sections, it provides:

  • Positive reminders
  • Distractions
  • Inspirational messages
  • Relaxation through controlled breathing
  • Guided meditation
  • Positive activity planner

One distinguishing difference between a traditional hope box and the virtual version, is Virtual Hope Box includes a function that allows direct dialing to 911, the Military Crisis Line, or user pre-programmed contacts. Blasko emphasized this feature underscores the importance of reaching out for help when you need it from your support network or professionals.

“My call to action to you is to download the app, upload items that are meaningful to you, program contact information so that it is ready if you need to call right away, and try it out,” Blasko said.

Virtual Hope Box is available through app stores for various smart phones. It has been downloaded more than 680,000 times, with about 11,000 new downloads per month.

In clinical trials, veterans who used Virtual Hope Box reported significantly greater ability to cope with unpleasant emotions and thoughts compared with a control group, and found the app to be more helpful than written educational materials.

The DHA maintains additional mobile apps that may serve as good self-care and health resources during the current crisis and beyond:

  • Breathe2Relax: Provides instruction on diaphragmatic “belly” breathing, which might help lower stress and reduce anxiety. Graphics, animation, narration, and videos lead users through several breathing exercises.
  • T2 Mood Tracker: Tracks a user’s range of emotions and behaviors to show how their life is affected by thoughts, moods, changes at home or at work, and events. Helps identify trends and triggers, and info can be shared with a health care provider.

To learn more about mobile health options, visit www.health/mil/mhealth.

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