New Guided Imagery App from UArizona Nursing Researcher to Help Reduce the Stress and Anxiety of Social Isolation

July 31, 2020

During the COVID-19 pandemic many people are sheltering in place and staying home, with little access to the outdoors or ability to engage in activities they enjoy. But a new mobile app hopes to address the negative health effects of social isolation by reducing stress and anxiety using a technique called Guided Imagery, which has been used to help people quit smoking,  get into shape, and reduce stress. Last month, UArizona’s BIO5 Institute awarded UArizona Nursing Associate Dean for Research, Judith Gordon, PhD, a seed grant to pursue COVID-19 team projects. One of several UArizona faculty to be awarded seed money, Dr. Gordon and her co-principal investigator, Chris Gniady, PhD, associate professor, Computer Science, will receive $20,360 to pursue their project, “See Me Serene: A Guided Imagery MHealth App for decreasing Anxiety Related to Social Isolation.”

Dr. Judith Gordon

While social media can provide connections with others, social isolation removes people from nature and the outdoors. People who cannot go outdoors may experience increased stress and anxiety as a result.  Although technologies exist to provide immersive experiences (e.g., virtual reality), they require specialized equipment and are expensive. The vast majority of Americans across age, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status own smartphones; and of those, most use mobile apps. Dr. Gordon’s project addresses this stress by offering a mobile app that delivers a Guided Imagery intervention.

Guided imagery is a proven method that uses enhanced visualization to help people deal with stressful situations, including social isolation. More than just visual images, guided Imagery involves imagining sights, sounds, tastes, smells, tactile senses, and the emotions you feel in a particular situation. Dr. Gordon and her colleagues have used Guided Imagery successfully to help people make positive lifestyle changes, like quitting smoking, eating healthfully, and getting more exercise. Guided Imagery also has been shown to be effective at reducing chronic pain and anxiety.

"Using a simple mHealth app to deliver Guided Imagery audio files will provide endless possibilities for simulating outdoor experiences for the millions of Americans experiencing social isolation," ~ Judith Gordon, PhD, UArizona Nursing Associate Dean, Research

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

The See Me Serene app provides users with immersive, vivid, nature experiences designed to reduce stress and anxiety related to social isolation. The app will be a more affordable and scalable solution than Virtual Reality, which requires expensive and specialized equipment. “See Me Serene allows users to select from at least 50 different audio files, each describing a different outdoor experience. The app also contains links to mental health resources that are available 24/7,” Dr. Gordon said.

The See Me Serene Logo

The goals of the See Me Serene research project are to pilot test the app with 100 participants. Participants will provide self-report survey data and will be tested for cortisol levels collected from saliva. Cortisol is a biological marker for stress. Participants will use the See Me Serene app for 4 weeks. People interested in participating can contact the research team from within the app.

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

The BIO5 grant was made possible with resources from the BIO5 Institute and the Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) to help researchers quickly pivot their work to address the pandemic in areas related to improving the health of Arizonans. 

The Technology and Research Initiative Fund that helped launch BIO5 in 2001 continues to be a catalyst in enabling effective, cross-disciplinary bioscience research and innovation at the University of Arizona, where initiatives and projects are carefully chosen to align with areas of state and national need.

Over the past 19 years of TRIF, over $50 million has been invested in building critical facilities and research services that UArizona is leveraging today to quickly and robustly respond to the current COVID-19 crisis. TRIF allows the flexibility to pivot and repurpose campus resources to engage in the complex fight against COVID-19, drawing on faculty expertise, campus facilities, logistical assets, research labs, and campus staff and leadership to provide immediate assistance in the battle against the pandemic.

The See Me Serene App is available from the App Store and Google Play. Find more information here