|Usually “mental-health tech” means an app with some screen-based features such as messaging, games or journaling. Now a new batch of products is focusing on something different: your body.Take the Orb, a $229 grapefruit-size ball from Israeli start-up Reflect Innovation, which sits in your hands and measures your heart rate and finger sweat while you try to relax. Then there’s the $79 Zen, from French company Morphée, which looks exactly like a rock but is actually an audio device that plays the company’s proprietary meditation content. And Dutch company Alphabeats built a $28.99-a-year stress-reduction app that combines music and “biofeedback,” which occurs when you practice controlling your body’s functions such as breath or heart rate.|
Armed with pricey, good-looking products that might be more retail therapy than mental-health treatment, tech companies are elbowing their way into moments of peace and silence that could be therapeutic even without a glowing or humming device. Several scientific studies show that meditation and biofeedback are effective treatments for anxiety — something many of us could benefit from what’s turning into an epidemic of stress.
But tech companies have little incentive to prove their products work to treat stress and anxiety, experts caution.It’s not scientific or statistically significant or anything, but the strongest feedback I feel we get is that anyone who hears about this product says, ‘Oh, I need one,’ ” said Shiri Perciger, chief marketing officer at Reflect, which makes the Orb.It’s easy to see the appeal of body-based therapies for stressed-out people. Even though there is little evidence linking stress to screen use, we are wary of our phones, the data they collect and the stress they drop into our laps at a moment’s notice.
A widely cited 1992 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry established that meditation has long-lasting positive effects for people with anxiety and panic disorders, and a 2017 study found that biofeedback training with heart rate led to significant drops in self-reported anxiety.There are benefits for companies, too. Meditation and biofeedback aren’t tainted by the scandals surrounding other types of mental-health tech, 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 spotty service and rote responses to patients.)Tech meets body-based therapiesIn his book,
“The Body Keeps the Score,”clinician and researcher Bessel van der Kolk criticized mental-health practitioners for sidelining body-based treatments, and he named meditation and biofeedback as therapies with the potential to remake the field. Now tech companies are repackaging these approaches in products that are easy to use.Both meditation and biofeedback involve paying attention to the body: Meditators often focus on the breath or another physical sensation, while biofeedback measures your breath, heart rate or brain waves and presents you with some signal based on that data. For instance, the Reflect Orb measures two physiological signs of stress — heart rate variability, which is the length of the pauses between different heartbeats, and electrodermal activity from 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 start trying to change them, said Perciger of Reflect. Some people naturally start taking longer, deeper breaths. Others find different ways — even ones they don’t consciously notice – to change the Orb’s readings.Alphabeats draws on similar ideas. After pairing the app with your Spotify account, you lie down, set your phone on your belly and start listening to music. In one exercise, a subtle buzzing sound plays over your songs until you slow your breath and heart rate enough for it to go away. In another, the app subtly adjusts the quality of the audio in response to your body.
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