In winter 2018, we received the uncommissioned challenge to research behavioural patterns, causes and existing products that would lead to students getting burned out more often in this day and age. Together with Webgaan, we planned a 1,5 month case study after which we would prototype an application that would help students with a burnout symptoms recover from those by themselves.
Due to circumstances, we had to take our online prototype down. Some crucial screens are added to this case, as is a summary of our research methods and conclusions.
"Every year, more Dutch students reportedly experience burn-out symptoms"
In the past few years, the number of students experiencing feelings of mental exhaustion and a pessimistic state of mind has gone up rapidly (NOS, 2018). 'Some symptoms are feeling restless; having trouble sleeping; anxiety attacks and having trouble concentrating', says Cees Jansen (64), who works as a student doctor at the University of Twente (Dinther, 2018). Getting an appointment with the school's own psychologist can take months, and visiting a psychologist elsewhere is often too expensive for students (NOS, 2016). Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences is the first university to take action and challenges it's creative students to develop a platform that could help students taking on their burnout symptoms without professional help.
"Where are those burnout symptoms coming from all of a sudden?"
According to previous studies, a burnout starts with an unregulated lifestyle (Kuler, 2016), for example, not being able to do proper timemanagement; not being able to set priorities straight; neglecting personal health and care, and even the omission of social activities. Bad habits of these sorts, can be blamed on several factors that students nowadays have to deal with. Such as financial unstability and uncertainty due to the new student loan system (Hoger Onderwijs Persbureau, 2019); the rise of social media (Afdeling Communicatie, 2018), and an increased feeling of pressure to perform and stand out at school or work (Boonstra, 2018). It is clear that a burnout can have many different causes and is experienced different by every person (Mijn Kwartier, z.d.), however, all symptoms and expressions can be linked to insecurities and distraction from priorities. To be able to help students beat their burnouts, there should come a tool that focusses on improving a healthy lifestyle, self esteem and building a routine.
Consciously working on your lifestyle and state of mind with Apphy
With our new design challenge: 'How can a mobile application make students with severe stress complaints, more aware of their lifestytle and stimulate them to change their behaviour in such a way that they experience less stress?', we started concepting our app. 'Apphy', as we called our project, would focus on the happy chemicals the human body produces during certain activities. By stimulating the frequent execution of activities tied to those happy chemicals, we believed that the overall state of mind could improve rapidly. If we could produce a product that both informs it's users about how these chemicals work, and stimulates them to complete the right activities, we hoped to have offered an effective self-help tool to reduce stress complaints.
What are 'Happy Chemicals'?
With the right balance and knowledge, students can control their own state of mind and well being. A human's happiness depends on five chemicals that are produced by different organs. These chemicals are referred to as neurotransmitters in the medical and psychological industries, and are known as being responsible for a human's state of mind and the level of happiness we feel. There are four 'happy chemicals', called dopamine, endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin, and one 'unhappy chemical' called cortisol. The happy chemicals can be categorized into social chemicals and selfish chemicals. The selfish chemicals are personal and released in different situations for every person, but the social chemicals are produced when certain forms of social contact take place, which makes activities that produce these could be a great start for the mobile app.
About each neurotransmitter
Dopamine is a happy and selfish chemical, which means that this neurotransmitter positively affects your happiness and that there's no need for social contact for it to be produced. Dopamine is produced when you achieve a goal. Your body then sends a signal to your brain after which in it's turn, releases a small dose of dopamine into the body that triggers a pleasant and complete feeling. For example, the feeling you get when you get a high grade or a reward for your work, is caused by the production and release of dopamine. Unfortunately, dopamine is also very addictive. It is also released when you gamble, smoke and drink alcohol for example (Roman, 2016).
Endorphins are also a happy and a selfish chemical. Endorphins are released when you push yourself to the limit or go beyond your pain threshold. A good example of this is the well-known "runners high" (Runners World, 2018). Endorphins are also released when you make a hard fall, causing you to handle the pain better. Because of the endorphins you will most of the time be able to get up quickly and only notice a few moments later that you might have broken a bone. Also, when given morphine in the hospital, this drug triggers your body to start producing more endorphins which is what actually causes you to stop feeling pain (Clipphanger, 2013).
Serotonin is a happy and a social chemical, because it takes a certain attitude towards a person from other people to feel this chemical. It is released when you feel proud and confident, and defines what we see as status and prestige. In short, serotonin is released when you receive recognition for something that you did from someone else. The downside here is that when your serotonin comes from recognition or compliments about material objects you own, you could start to feel insecure without those products. This phenomenon is often spotted with teenagers, who can have to go without their favourite shirt for a few days because it is in the laundry basket, or delete a selfie because it didn't get enough likes... (Buckner, 2018).
Oxytocin is also a happy and social chemical. Oxytocin is released when you feel connected to other people. It is a feeling of love, trust and friendship. When you give someone a hand, hug or compliment, the human body already starts producing oxytocin. The chemical ensures that when you have pleasant contact with a person, this creates an emotional bond between you and the person. An example of this is that when you are sad, you can be comforted by a hug from someone close to you. (Psychology Today, 2012).
Cortisol is the 'unhappy chemical'. Unlike the other neurotransmitters, cortisol is a hormone whose production is stimulated at times of experiencing stress or anxiety. Cortisol can also be referred to as the natural survival instinct. You constantly have cortisol in your body, it ensures that you are extra alert and careful when you cross a busy road and that you are startled by things you do not see coming. A standard cortisol level keeps people alive and only ensures accelerated breathing and blood pressure when experiencing fear. It ensures healthy self-protection. However, an increased cortisol level can cause paranoid feelings and anxiety attacks, ánd, it makes a person less empathetic. (Simon Sinek, 2013).
How are we going to stimulate the production of neurotransmitters using a mobile application?
Because the app was developed on behalf of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, students from this institution will be informed about the app. With the slogan "Stay happy with Apphy", students are introduced to the mobile application. The application offers a journey of challenges that users must perform every day for 45 days. This duration is based on scientific research which shows that the human brain needs 45 days to pick up a new routine (Graziano Breuning, 2016).
In the onboarding of the app, users are asked four questions that they simply have to answer with 'yes' or 'no', after which the app generates either one of two challenges based on the given answers. Each question is related to one of the four happy chemicals and determines whether the user in question needs a particular substance more than the others. An example of such a question is 'Do you exercise regularly?'. This question is related to challenges focussed on producing endorphins. An example a following challenge for people who do not exercise regularly, could be 'take a 15 minute walk every day', where a sports fanatic would receive 'go running for 45 minutes every day'. Users do not have to use the app on a daily basis. When they open the app after two days, a pop-up will appear asking whether the user has completed the challenge in the past two days. We do this because we do not want to encourage the use of mobile phones, which is often accused of having a bad influence on a human's well being.
When users have completed a challenge every day for an entire week, they are given the option to pick out a new challenge with a maximum of six challenges at the same time. This is to make users more aware of their state of mind and to promote the stimulation of various happy chemicals. Users can also choose to quit a challenge when they feel they are ready yet for an extensive daily schedule and stick to one or two challenges at a time. Every challenge is linked to another happy chemical, and offers a rich explanation of what it is and how it works. The app also offers tips on what users can do beside the challenges in the app to reach an overall improved state of mind. An example: an explanation coming with a to-do list challenge would give information about how making a to-do list can provide overview and therefore be calming. If you can tick it off completely at the end of the day, you will produce dopamine and get a good feeling about yourself and your productivity (Simon Sinek, 2013).
All this will cause app users to become more aware of neurotransmitters and their effects, hopefully making burnout complaints among students to become a more discussed topic as well as helping them solve their complaints. The information about activities in relation to certain feelings that the app offers will thus not only be distributed via the app, but also by students among themselves. As a result, we expect to have tackled a large part of the problem at its roots.
Thank you for your interest in this subject. Due to circumstances, we had to take our prototype offline, but here are some resources we found very useful.
Book: Habits of a Happy Brain by Loretta Breuning
Blogs: Psychology Today, Author Loretta Breuning
Videos: Psychology made easy by Simon Sinek
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