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Tablet app may help sailors dial back stress

Mar. 30, 2013 - 08:36AM   |  
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The Navy is developing a tablet app that will train sailors and Marines to control their response to stress, allowing them to stay calm and focused during a crisis.

And some sailors will get to try it soon: A two-month study will be conducted at the Naval Center for Combat and Operational Stress Control in San Diego in April with about 200 volunteers, said Cmdr. Joseph Cohn, program officer in the Office of Naval Research's Warfighter Performance Department and creator of the app project.

The Stress Resilience Training System is a three-part iPad app that gives sailors and Marines information about stress, teaches them how to control it and lets them play games that practice those techniques. The idea is that war fighters will be familiar with handling stress, through the app, and will be better able to control their reaction in a real-life situation.

“The initial idea came about because we were seeing so many war fighters coming back with high levels of [post-traumatic stress disorder], so initially that was sort of the target area,” Cohn said. “But I think every sailor, every Marine, really everyone who has a chance to go into combat, could benefit from it.”

The app works with a heart rate monitor that plugs into the bottom port of the iPad, where you'd normally charge it, and clips to your earlobe.

The monitor does not measure a user's pulse. Rather, it monitors “heart rate variability,” what Cohn described as how even the highs and lows are in electrocardiogram waves. Stress causes heart rate variability to become more erratic.

Experts at handling stress are still experiencing stress, Cohn said.

“They experience stress in advance of the actual action, so by the time they're ready to perform, they're at a high level of awareness and alertness,” he said. “But they're not inhibited by some of the negative aspects of stress.”

The goal of the app is to train troops to handle stress through actions such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation.

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Games vary from basic to advanced and adapt to the user's heart rate variability. They also let a user get more mentally and emotionally involved in the game as it gets more challenging, Cohn said.

One of the more advanced games lets a user race a car through a tunnel. The car gets more energy, goes faster and is easier to control when the player is controlling his heart rate variability. If stress makes his heart beat uncontrolled, however, the car will go slower and be harder to control.

If the app is proved effective and released, Cohn said, ideally it would be available for download in the Apple App Store.

Sailors and Marines will need to use their own iPad for the training, though researchers are looking at ways to adapt the program for other tablet systems. Researchers at ONR are also looking at how effective the program could be on smaller screens, like iPhones, Cohn said.

While anyone will be able to download the app, Cohn said it will be most effective when used with a mentor, like a mental health professional or trained peer mentor, who can guide the user through the experience.

The main goal of the project is to help sailors and Marines handle the stresses of combat, but it should also save the service money. In the first year after returning from overseas, care for a war fighter diagnosed with PTSD will cost more than $8,000, while care for someone without PTSD will cost about $2,000, according to a February 2012 Congressional Budget Office report.

A fully supported military version should be available by this summer, Cohn said.

ONR is working with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency on the app. Perceptronics Solutions, a research company based in Sherman Oaks, Calif., is the prime contractor for the app's development, a Navy news release said.

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