I often send clients away with the homework of observing their own reactivity or anxiety throughout the week. “Be your own scientist or your own anthropologist,” I encourage them. “Observe yourself in the wild. You may not be able to do anything differently, but you can learn to hover above yourself and take notes as you engage in relationships and activities that influence anxiety.”
Yet as well-intentioned as this homework may be, people often struggle to know how to be a good observer, or how to take good notes on symptoms and reactivity. How can I expect my clients to be good scientists when I am thinking about theory and the emotional process every day and still am often perplexed?
So I set out recently to think about how technology can play a role in this science of observation. We use smart phones all the time to distance and distract ourselves from our reactivity, but we can also use our gadgets to engage it and take responsibility for our distress. Our devices also enable us to be more truthful about our behaviors. A client looking back on his or her week in a therapist’s office is more likely to spin information and be influenced by his or her reactivity in the moment.
I checked out two popular apps for tracking symptoms and behaviors to see how they could be used and modified to track the kinds of observations I encourage my clients to perform.
The first, TracknShare (iPhone app store $4.99), allows a person to track daily factors such as mood, sleep, diet, exercise, and even items such as contact with friends, acts of kindness, and the weather. The user can then compare items across weeks and months and download the data. What I love about TracknShare is that categories can be added and edited. So as a family systems thinker, if I wanted to keep track of phone calls to family members or even theoretical concepts like engaging in an emotional triangle, I could easily add these as categories.
A simpler and free alternative app is Symple, where users can list the symptoms they want to track and the factors that influence the symptoms (positively or negatively). The information can easily be emailed to a doctor or other clinician. Symple is less graph-focused, but it easily allows for me to enter non-medical symptoms as criteria to track. For example, if you wanted to track how much you “over-functioned” in a marriage over the course of the week, you could reflect on how factors such as work stress, amount of sleep, etc. contributed to it.
With any method of tracking, paper and pencil or iPhone, developing the habit is no simple task. But since we’re always glancing at our phones in the free seconds of our lives, why not use them to engage our thinking about anxiety and relationships? It certainly beats Candy Crush.