When most people think of mood swings they probably associate them with the ups and downs of everyday life. People with bipolar disorder have a different experience. Their extreme moods may bear no particular relationship to what is going on around them and some aspects of high moods can even combine with low moods at the same time. Mood changes can be slow or rapid. They can veer from states of mania to severe depression that can last for weeks or months. Getting help can be a real struggle and when it finally does arrive it is often past the point when it might have prevented symptom escalation.
In order to live successfully with bipolar disorder, constructive plans are needed to manage its phases. Such plans are acquired over time and often with some degree of trial and error. Mood tracking is an important feature and the conventional method is to use a diary or mood chart.
There is always a level of subjectivity when it comes to mood tracking, partly because any self-rating of mood is affected by mood itself. For this reason it can be helpful to have a partner on board to help balance the equation. A low mood, for example, might not be a sign of a bipolar episode developing so much as the fact that you’ve been under stress at work and haven’t been sleeping too well. Your partner can remind you of these things and keep things in perspective.
Mood tracking apps
Not everyone is fortunate enough or disciplined enough to keep mood records or have someone point out that their moods are changing. So anything that can lead to accurate detection of mood changes indicative of bipolar disorder is a welcome contribution.
In 2015 Venet Osmani and colleagues at the Center for Research and Telecommunication Experimentation for Networked Communities (CREATE-NET) announced the results of a small study using smartphones to detect depressive and manic episodes. Just 12 patients over a period of 12 weeks had their moods monitored via sensors within their smartphones.
Signs of slipping into a manic phase include rapid speech and increased frequency of phone contact with others. Osmani found he could measure these by an accelerometer, sound analysis software and simple call history. Similarly, signs of depression, which include slower movements, sluggish speech, and fewer conversations, could be detected in a similar manner.
During the study phase mood states were also monitored using conventional methods. Osmani wanted to know how well smartphones could detect mood changes and how often the data gave false alarms. What resulted was a very promising 96 percent accuracy rate. Osmani hopes this sort of monitoring could help result in timely treatment.
Free and low-cost apps
The consumer websites like Healthline have compiled a list of a dozen apps specifically designed for people with bipolar disorder. Mood logs and trackers feature strongly and ratings are based upon user experience. Some apps are available for both iPhone and Android, but not all.
Also, be aware that while the star ratings appear favorable there is no information as to how many people were involved in the ratings or even whether the ratings relate specifically to the therapeutic benefits of the app or some other factor (e.g., cost, user friendliness, etc.). Several of the apps are free, however, so you’ll be able to judge for yourself at no cost.
Whatever you decide to try, keep in mind that apps are not intended as substitutes for medical supervision, treatment or even symptom management. You may find their best use comes from sharing the data gathered with your health care professional. The insights gained from some apps may also help you better understand how your thoughts, emotions and experiences work together in order to increase your own understanding of your unique situation.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.