Coming to my senses

When taking a deep breath just won’t cut it

Rebooting is a biweekly newsletter about how we can use technology to take better care of ourselves.


Getting cheated on isn’t something that stops stinging just because you’ve moved on. If you’re lucky, a few hundred plays of “Say My Name” or “Cry Me a River” will bury those feelings for good. But most of the time that uncertainty follows us into future relationships, lying in wait for the right moment to jump out and reveal itself. Cue the bummer. 

Last week, I went to say goodbye to my girlfriend before walking the dogs and moving our cars to avoid a $70 street sweeping ticket. She asked me what time it was, and since my phone was in another room, I checked on hers. After noting the time, I saw a message on her lock screen from “Maybe: Tony” followed by…a lot of words. Going through your partner’s phone is a sure way to find something to be mad about, no matter how trivial or harmless, not to mention the invasion of privacy and broken trust that comes along with it.

Instead of reading the message and investigating, I decided to drive myself wild with questions like “Who the heck is Tony?” or “would Tony move her car for her?” Suddenly every inadequacy I have as a partner, real or made up by my masochistic psyche, piled onto what was—before Tony—a healthy relationship. I could’ve asked my girlfriend who Tony was, but she had already fallen back asleep and I didn’t want to seem accusatory. But within a few minutes anxiety took over and the feelings of past traumas and infidelities swooped in.

It would’ve been easy to let those feelings take over as they have before, but my girlfriend taught me a trick the first time she saw me at the start of a panic attack that helps in moments like this. Whenever I start to feel anxious, I just remind myself of my surroundings by asking what I can see, hear, touch, and smell, rather than dwelling on whatever’s causing my heart to race. As long as I catch it early enough, this works. The problem is, the better I get at adapting to the ways my panic attacks creep up, the faster they ramp up, so I made something on my phone that keeps those questions just a few taps, or words, away.

If you’ve never heard of Shortcuts, it’s basically a way to make tasks happen automatically on your phone and make your apps talk with each other to get those tasks done. Usually this is for things like changing the color of the lights in the rooms of your house or creating a checklist in your to-do list app of choice, but I made a tiny script in Shortcuts that asks me all those questions whenever I feel a panic attack knocking be it from something as small as a mistaken text or a missing key, for those moments where I forget.

To get started, you’ll need to download the Shortcuts app from the App Store. I’m not going to get into the basics of how to use the app here, though I’ll link at the bottom to pieces that accomplish that much better than I could, but if you’re interested in going beyond the Shortcut I’ll be sharing, it’s worth diving into. Plus, it’s a fun little thing to tinker with!

Once you’ve got the app downloaded, you’ll need to download my Anxiety Check shortcut. I’ve made two, one that’s text-based, and another that uses iOS’s voice to read the questions to you. I mostly use the voice one since I don’t have to look at my phone while it calms me down. That one doesn’t ask for a response, it just gives you eight seconds to reflect between prompts, while playing some white noise in the background via Dark Noise. If you want, though, you can cut that part out and just get the voice prompts without the fluff. Just a note: you’ll have to enable your app to allow untrusted shortcuts, but you can turn it off after downloading this one. 

That’s just one of the things Shortcuts can do to help manage your mental health. I’ve also set it up to track my medications and  give me quick workouts to calm my nerves. Depending on your needs, there are plenty of things you can do with Shortcuts to make the messiness of mental illness a bit easier to navigate. Thanks to this one, I won’t have to wait until I know Tony is actually just some dude texting for Bernie Sanders before I can calm down and leave the woes of infidelity in past relationships behind me.

Crash courses on Shortcuts

  • Apple has a pretty neat official guide to Shortcuts that can help you nail down the fundamentals before learning all sorts of cool tricks.

  • There’s a growing list of Shortcuts experts, and Federico Viticci was one of the first. His site, Macstories, has a massive archive of Shortcuts they’ve put together over the years, and they’ve got plenty of coverage on the topic so you can get a feel for what the app can really do.

  • Rosemary Orchard’s Take Control of Shortcuts book has helped me get more technical and do cooler things with Shortcuts than I’d thought I’d ever get into. It’s a great read, and it’s pretty short!

In the News

The difference between worry, stress and anxiety (The New York Times): These three things seem pretty connected—and they are!—but it’s important to know the difference if you’re going to start tackling them head-on. Until my diagnosis, I had no idea there was a difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack!

The loneliness of the sad Youtube fitness video (The Cut): We all do things online that we hope our roommates and partners never find out about. It’s why I’m thankful for Spotify’s private sessions, and why I only listen to my favorite podcast bits for the 100th time when nobody’s around. But, maybe the Internet would be a bit nicer if we all approached it with the same sunshine and silliness that The Circle’s Shooby did.

How do I stop snooping on my loved ones? (Vice): This is a tough one. I get it. Maybe Tony wasn’t the first time I was tempted to go through a partner’s phone—we all have that itch from time to time. It’s important to know that regardless of what you find—even if it’s exactly what you’d suspected—you won’t walk away feeling great. Just saying “don’t do it” isn’t helpful though when your mind starts finding reasons to go through with it, so here’s a nice little guide on ways to avoid wandering eyes! 

Something Nice

Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell: I’ve been spending a lot more time trying to use YouTube for learning, lately, and this channel makes some of my favorite videos. Each video tackles a different topic, like the ethics of milk, loneliness, and wormholes. They’re short enough to keep my attention, while still being long enough to give some depth. Plus, their animations are gorgeous, and make learning a little more fun. 

As always, if you have any questions, feedback, or just want to say hello, feel free to drop me a line on Twitter.

My thanks to Medea Giordano for editing this issue.