There is an inherent contradiction that I have noticed in a lot of workbooks, apps, and other tools for mental and/or physical health. The tools themselves require a tremendous amount of attention to detail, dedication and memory for recording precise events at precise times. If those things were intuitive for me, I wouldn’t need those tracking and reminder apps in the first place!
It’s a great idea – in theory – to record every time I feel triggered, depressed, light-headed or aching, then to write down which techniques I tried to address the problem(s) with a corresponding 1-5 Likert scale rating of how much symptom reduction I obtained from them. I’m a data nerd by nature, but I also have ADHD. I need the tracking to be easy to do, work in multiple environments, and to provide handy visual data aggregations to make sense of the trends. I create those types of data visualizations every day for my job, but I do not have the time or spoons to take on a second job doing my day job again on my own time for my own health! If someone wants to pay me to create the world’s most perfect health tracking report, great. Until then, I just want technology to do it for me!
I remember one time a therapist gave me literally 25 DBT worksheets. Of those 25 worksheets – that were all required homework for people taking the formal DBT class – there were really only about five different big concepts and one list of tips and tricks per concept. I was able to condense all 25 of them into about three pages of notes and two graphs on one standard lab notebook each. I was very glad I wasn’t in the formal class – and thus wasn’t required to complete the sheets as is – but had simply asked about them as a self-help tool. I’d have failed that class because the mental health it would have taken to be diligent about that many worksheets would have been more than I had at the time I was asking about them! That’s kind of why I was asking about tracking in the first place!
I feel the same kind of exhaustion looking at many of the mental and physical health tracking apps on the app store today. I do, however, have ADHD. If something isn’t tracked, it doesn’t exist. I can’t remember yesterday, much less several months worth of patterns if they aren’t conveniently plotted on a graph. I also successfully obtained my dysautonomia diagnosis by patiently tracking my blood pressure and heart rate in various situations over months. I still track it to determine whether I’m headed for a crash. I also track my bank account, my appointments and just about anything else I can think of. Over time, I’ve had to come up with a set of goldilocks apps that are complex enough to show me data aggregations at a scale or display type useful enough to make something out of, but also simple enough that I will actually fill them out regularly enough to obtain a worthy sample size.
This has been one of those weeks where I’m too tired and stressed to write a meaningful blog post. I could claim that I’m creating a list post as a service to my readers for Ehlers-Danlos and/or Mental Health and/or Fibromyalgia and/or Allergy Awareness Month. Really, I’m just making things easy for myself. List posts require less mental energy than real posts. Lists of lists of things I already use on a daily basis require the least spoons of all possible posts. That said, I do rely more than ever on the lists of phone apps and tips for health tracking below on weeks like these to take care of myself.
Thus, without further ado, here are a list of apps that I keep installed and synced across all of my devices, so that I have them with me whether I’m using my laptop, phone, tablet or surgical internet implant (okay, that last one doesn’t exist yet, but if it did, I’d probably install the apps on it, too.)
- A Soft Murmur: I need white noise to think. Apparently, it’s a common ADHD tip for falling asleep or drowning out the distractions of an open office. I like this one because it lets me customize and save a mix that is soothing for me, specifically.
- Boomerang for Gmail: The archive feature on Gmail was the possibly the single greatest invention in the history of the internet. However, the blessing and curse of archiving are that once something is gone, it’s gone for good. Sometimes you need that “something” a month later. Boomerang is great because it lets you schedule an email to go out at a future date or “boomerang” it back to your inbox if, for instance, the person your boss tells you to follow up with never replies or your boss asks you to pursue the thread two months later. It’s free up to ten messages a month, which is usually plenty for me since I have multiple email addresses and only need about that many per email address.
- Evernote: Even when something has a pay option, I usually refuse to use it. I have money for random subscriptions now, but a) I haven’t always b) I spend more of that money than I’d like dealing with the expenses related to someone else’s care and c) I haven’t always. Paying money for something to reduce anxiety is a bit paradoxical for me since it reminds me of how quality care is usually only the purview of a select few in this country, which pings just hard enough on my own experiences that it doesn’t help. I prefer my anxiety-reducing apps to be something I could continue to rely on if I, say, had the anxiety of actually losing my job. Evernote is great in its free version. It’s also the only app on this list that so improves my productivity that paying for the premium package probably pays me back in spades by helping me keep my job. Evernote is my electronic brain. It’s the place I can take quick notes, take pictures of handouts from work meetings or insurance records before I inevitably lose them and search pdfs for my half-remembered keywords. I don’t think I could function like an adult without Evernote. Seriously. I also pair this with the Dropbox app for even more assurance I can find any file I need from any machine at any time.
- ADDA Health Storylines: There are actually a bunch of Health Storylines, for multiple conditions. What I like about the app, though, is that I don’t have to get a separate app for each thing I want to track. I’m sure there are better apps (I’ve heard great things about Daylio, for instance) for specific concerns like mood tracking, etc. However, more apps mean more complexity. I can use the features from any version of Health Storylines within my ADHD-specific one. Thus, I can track my blood pressure or allergy triggers in the same place I record mental health. I also don’t like mood trackers that don’t allow you to record historical entries. If I’m really having a rough time, I may not remember to record anything – and the next day I may not remember when, specifically, during the day I felt so stressed. I like that Health Storylines has the ability to edit historical entries. I also like that its “Health Routines” features means that I can set up a list of things that help me when I’m feeling overwhelmed as features in a ‘routine’ and just mark them completed – with an automatic date and time stamp – when I do them. I don’t often get fancier than just recording my mood as positive or negative – but when I do, I can later correlate the self-care item I marked off with my updated symptom (reduced pain or decreased anxiety, for instance) after completion.
- Overdrive, the WordPress app, and Pokemon Go: Waiting in line is the bane of ADHD existence, and sometimes it helps to just check out mentally for a few minutes on a break. Having some library ebooks, games or blogs that can be consumed in short fifteen-minute chunks can be stress-relieving during the day.
- ES File Explorer: I hate when I download things on my phone – or just want to find my music – and can’t search my Android phone like a normal laptop. This app isn’t really specific to health, but it’s just convenient for an overwhelmed brain to organize phone storage.
- Mint: There are a lot of great budget apps out there, including YNAB. I happen to have been with Mint for over a decade. I will never be able to replicate that kind of historical spending data anywhere else, so Mint maintains my loyalty. I also like that it has helpful overspending alerts, and I can continue to use it when I travel overseas. Vacations are notorious for leading to overspending, so not being able to use an app outside the U.S. – like I’ve experienced with a prior budget app – is not very helpful.
- MyDaysX: This is a bit TMI, but we’re all friends here. I suck at tracking my cycles, and that’s not a great thing for a female to be surprised by. This app or one like it will always have a home on my phone.
- Venmo: Owing or being owed money sucks. I love that I can use this to make sure neither of those situations applies to me, even when my terrible memory would otherwise make me look rude or like a chump. I have mentioned before that being the girl who offers to make a coffee run for the entire office is one of my strategies to gain some breathing space. This app ensures I don’t go broke doing it.
- Insight Timer: I’ve also heard great things about Pacifica and the Calm app, but both seem to want either my money or for me to track a bunch of things (like my moods) that I’d rather keep in one place in my Health Storylines app. I am not great at meditation, but I keep trying. This app helps with that.
- TripCase: I travel a lot for work. I can email all of my various plane, train, automobile and hotel confirmations – along with my meeting agenda and conference room – to one place with this app.
- Grammarly: I jumped for joy when this extension, which I have used on my laptop for ages, became available on my phone. I still make spelling and grammar errors, but I make fewer of them thanks to Grammarly.
- F.lux: I use my electronic devices much later in the evening than I should. Hopefully, dimming their blue light at least minimizes their impact on my sleep.
I also adhere to the following tips for using those wellness and other life-management tracking apps to make it more likely I will actually use them regularly enough for them to teach me something about myself:
1) Simplify! Don’t try and use all the features. Feature creep is distracting and leads to analysis paralysis. On most days, I will often only use three icons to describe my day: a basic smiley face, frowny face, or neutral face. I’ll add a one-word descriptor: either “mental” or “physical” or “both” to note if the primary cause was more something like a triggering event or if I just had a high pain day. When I’m having a streak of bad days, a crisis with someone I care for, or a really bad flare, I might try to add additional time-stamped descriptors in line with specific self-care events that are correspondingly timestamped (in Health Storylines above) to note whether a specific self-care activity helped, but most of the time just one icon and one word are enough to clue me in how act appropriately to take care of myself. I also try to use as few apps as possible for the same general category of tracking as possible. Yes, there are probably better apps for just mental health than the one I use for both mental and physical health, but having everything on one app makes it more likely I’ll use both the features. Also, heaven help the ADHDer who thinks having eight time management apps is better than one. I’ve been that girl, and I lost more time trying to remember where the reminders I needed were than anything else.
2) Set a routine. I always check my blood pressure when I get up (literally when I get “up” – mine drops when I stand up) in the morning. If I’m already low in blood pressure or hurting in my joints as soon as I wake up – or if I know I woke up from a particularly visceral nightmare – it’s already a good hint that I should take extra precautions and pay more attention during the rest of the day to try and keep things from getting worse. Sometimes just a simple morning check-in can be enough to keep the rest of the day on track. When I get home from work, I can always revise that initial impression if the day changed markedly from my morning record, but if I forget I at least have one data point (and that data point was likely reasonably accurate or I’d have remembered to revise it.)
3) Always use the same 1-10 Likert scale for everything severity related. It’s stupid that doctors like 1-10 Likert scales and treat them like something universal. My “5” might be someone else’s “10.” It helps to know your own baseline. I made up what the 1-10 scale means to me personally so I can be consistent in my own ratings. What I’ve noticed, though, is that doctors never ask me what each number really “means” if they see that I had a string of “yellow” (4-6) pain days and now suddenly am in a “red” (7-10) cycle. Having simple visual data that shows “numbers went up = Lavender is getting worse” seems to help even when doctors have no idea what the absolute scale means. It’s weird, but if you have a scale on your phone you can also often avoid having to fill out the waiting room form and have things open to interpretation. I will often just write “will show doctor my tracking ratings in office” on the intake form to force the doctor to have a conversation with me.
4) Track vitamins or supplements with a medication tracker. I take iron and vitamin d, and until I started treating them the same in my med tracker as my prescription medications, I never remembered to take them. In theory, tracking any vitamins taken by choice can also help to determine more accurately if they really correlate with better symptom days, but, again, that can be overwhelming to track. So, refer to the first hint (simplify) by default and judge additional capacity from there.
5) Measure even when you have a good day. First, it helps reinforce the routine (hint 2) of tracking, so I’ll remember to track even when I feel like crap. Second, it helps me accurately calibrate my own personal 1-10 scale (hint 3.) Doing so has helped me realize that what I call a good day still includes some pain and fatigue. That alone helps me feel more comfortable sticking up for my real symptoms and real needs when I visit my doctor. A good day might mean a symptom is only a 3/10, but the symptom is definitely still present enough to claim it. I was discounting my own reality in my memories before I started tracking on my “good” days. I was thinking I must not “really” be a spoonie because I had “good” days. Now, I both realize that “good” symptom days don’t mean “gone” symptom days – just relative improvements – and that those good days are also good days to try and determine what I might have done previously that helped bring them about. Good days are also good days to try out the more sophisticated kinds of correlation tracking that might feel overwhelming on the truly “bad” days.