Meditation and biofeedback are the new trend in ‘anxiety tech’

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Usually, “mental health technology” means an app that has some screen-based features, such as messages, games, or diaries. Now a new batch of products targets something else: your body.

Take the Orb, a $229 grapefruit-sized ball from Israeli start-up Reflect Innovation, which sits in your hands and measures your heart rate and finger sweat as you try to relax. Then there’s the $79 Zen, from French company Morphée, which looks exactly like a stone but is actually an audio device that plays the company’s own meditation content. And Dutch company Alphabeats built a $28.99-a-year stress reduction app that combines music with “biofeedback,” which occurs when you practice controlling your bodily functions, such as breathing or heart rate.

Armed with expensive, fancy products that might be more retail therapy than mental health treatment, tech companies are paving their way to moments of peace and quiet that could be therapeutic even without a glowing or buzzing device. Several scientific studies show that meditation and biofeedback are effective treatments for anxiety – something many of us could benefit from in what is becoming a stress epidemic. But tech companies have little incentive to prove their products work to treat stress and anxiety, experts warn.

“It’s not scientific or statistically significant or anything, but the strongest feedback I think we’re getting is everyone who hears about this product is like, ‘Oh, I need one,'” said Shiri Perciger, chief marketing officer at Reflect, who uses the Orb.

It’s easy to see the appeal of body-based therapies for stressed people. While there’s little evidence linking stress to screen use, we’re wary of our phones, the data they collect, and the stress they throw at us in an instant. A widely cited 1992 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that meditation has long-lasting positive effects for people with anxiety and panic disorders, and a 2017 study found that heart rate biofeedback training led to a significant drop in self-reported anxiety.

There are also advantages for companies. Meditation and biofeedback have not been tainted by the scandals surrounding other forms of mental health technology, such as text-based therapy apps. (Leading therapy app Talkspace gave its employees burner phones to leave good reviews and bury bad ones, the New York Times reported, while BetterHelp came under fire for lackluster service and memorized responses to patients.)

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Technology meets body-based therapies

In his book “The Body Keeps the Score,” clinician and researcher Bessel van der Kolk criticized mental health practitioners for sidelining body-based treatments, citing meditation and biofeedback as therapies with the potential to redefine the field. to make. Now technology companies are repackaging these approaches into products that are easy to use.

Both meditation and biofeedback pay attention to the body: meditators often focus on breathing or some other physical sensation, while biofeedback measures your breathing, heart rate or brain waves and gives you a signal based on that data. For example, the Reflect Orb measures two physiological signs of stress: heart rate variability, the length of the pauses between different heartbeats, and electrodermal activity of the sweat glands on your fingers. Meanwhile, a soft light on top of the Orb changes from purple to blue to white as your body calms down.

Just by thinking about these bodily functions, people begin to change them, said Reflect’s Perciger. Some people naturally begin to breathe longer and deeper. Others find various ways – even ones they don’t consciously notice – to alter the Orb’s measurements.

Alphabeats is based on similar ideas. After linking the app to your Spotify account, lie down, put your phone on your stomach and start listening to music. In one exercise, a subtle humming sound plays over your songs until you slow your breathing and heart rate enough for it to subside. In another, the app subtly adjusts the quality of the audio in response to your body.

And there’s Morphée’s Zen, which is a rock at first glance and an audio file player that looks exactly like a rock at second glance.

Connect headphones to the Zen and you can play meditations, including visualization exercises, body scans and music. Because there’s no app, and not even a screen, there’s no risk of emails being pinged, Morphée co-founder Charlie Rousset said. People can enjoy all the benefits of meditations with minimal technical interference – except, of course, those headphones plugged into a rock.

“We don’t want an app. It was a big decision we had to make in the company,” said Rousset.

Anxiety tech is a quick fix for a big problem. But is this the best we’ve got?

It’s easy to make fun of the ghostly orb or the techno rock. But if we mock these products, are we different from the uncle who insists that anxious people just need to toughen up?

Mental health care is shrouded in stigma and it’s hard to know what’s legitimate. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, 18 percent of Americans suffered from clinical anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Now the pandemic is being labeled a mental health crisis for its role in amplifying anxiety.

Despite rising demand for mental health technology, there’s still little visibility into whether the products actually work, says Stephen Schueller, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Irvine and executive director of One Mind PsyberGuide, which specializes in mental health. assesses. health apps and digital health resources.

A 2017 study of 52 anxiety apps found that two-thirds had no healthcare professionals involved in their development, and less than 4 percent had been thoroughly tested. As long as people buy, companies have little incentive to prove their claims, Schueller said, and meditation and biofeedback products are no exception.

“I worry about the industry pushing ineffective solutions and people putting off effective care because they try something and it doesn’t help them,” he said.

When companies present facts and figures, Schuller notes, they may come from studies with participants who don’t suffer from chronic anxiety. Such was the case with Reflect, which has not yet studied the effect of the Orb on people with clinical anxiety. Morphée’s Rousset said it was too early to share information about Zen’s effectiveness, despite the product already being marketed in Europe.

Still, business leaders say they’ve taken some steps to validate their products. Morphée says it has partnerships with several hospitals and practitioners who recommend its other products for insomnia. Alphabeats says it saw promising results from a recent study with health professionals at Fontys Hogeschool in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. After four weeks of regular use of the music biofeedback, employees reported significantly lower levels of stress, it said.

Mental health technology can also play an important role for people who are too busy or understaffed to seek other types of care, Schuller said. According to the American Psychological Association, 1 in 3 U.S. counties does not have a single licensed psychological professional.

“We live in a world that sometimes makes it difficult to build and maintain a mental presence,” Perciger said.

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Heather Shoren Iarusso, a meditation teacher who lives at the San Francisco Zen Center, said tech companies aren’t really interested in freeing us from stress — they just encourage us to take short breaks.

Any product that makes a positive difference to people’s mental health is worth it, but companies involved in meditation take heed: Before “Zen” was a $79 rock, it was a spiritual tradition. And that tradition teaches ideas — such as compassion for the self and detachment from earthly objects — that can be bad for business, she said.

Meditation and biofeedback are the new trend in ‘anxiety tech’

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