Anxiety is on the rise, especially among women, so what can we do about it? If you don’t have time to meditate or take a yoga class, some new tech products promise near-instant stress relief. We look at Moonbird, a handheld device that teaches you how to breathe; Apollo Neuroscience, a wearable that subtly vibrates and helps you sleep, recover or focus; and Tripp, a digital psychedelic experience served up via virtual reality headset. (And bonus: All of these companies have women founders.) Can the burgeoning field of anxiety tech help remedy our racing thoughts and sweaty palms and intense feelings of panic? We find out in this episode. And don’t forget: April is National Stress Awareness Month.
COLLEEN: We all experience anxiety. Whether it's mild symptoms – racing heartbeat, sweating, maybe dizziness…
SUE: Or something a lot more serious – panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder…
LUANA MARQUES: Anxiety runs in a spectrum.
COLLEEN: That's the former president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America…
LUANA: Luana Marques. I'm an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
COLLEEN: Like many in the field, she's seen an influx of patients since the pandemic.
LUANA: The World Health Organization, the CDC, they all reported a jump, and early on in the pandemic, it made a lot of sense. The world was anxious.
SUE: The Covid-19 pandemic triggered a massive 25% rise in anxiety and depression around the globe, especially among women. Here's a new mom talking to CBS news.
CBS NEWS: One of the hardest things for me was the isolation, and the loneliness.
COLLEEN: And while that jump has come down, it's still lingering.
SUE: It's not your imagination.
LUANA: I've seen it globally. I've seen on my practice there's a lot more people coming in where they just say to me, "I was a little anxious before but now I'm paralyzed."
COLLEEN: Something interesting that Dr. Luana has noticed is that some people – young and old – are anxious because they're re-assessing their lives.
LUANA: There's this value shift that I've seen in the pandemic, that people were forced to pause and be like, “What matters most?” Then we have all of these individuals trying to figure out what do they do next in their life, and with that comes uncertainty and some degree of anxiety, I think.
COLLEEN: And what's more – if you ever felt like you were the ONLY person who felt anxiety, you probably don't now.
SUE: The list of famous people talking about mental health grows longer by the day.
COLLEEN: Ryan Reynolds. Sophie Turner. Megan Thee Stallion wrote an entire song about Anxiety…
MEGAN THEE STALLION: I'm a bad bitch and I got bad anxiety.
SUE: Selena Gomez released a documentary about her mental-health struggles, called 'My Mind & Me.'
SELENA GOMEZ: I am grateful to be alive.
COLLEEN: And let's not forget Prince Harry, of course, and Meghan Markle, who are practically taking down the British monarchy over its failure to address mental health.
PRINCE HARRY: They knew how bad it was – they thought, why can't she just deal with it? As if to say, well everybody has dealt with it, why can't she deal with it?
COLLEEN: Here's Dr. Luana again…
LUANA: Mental health has become a conversation that we now can have. Is it that the anxiety really increased significantly, or is it that now we have celebrities and important people saying, "Listen, I'm anxious too." So I think there's a lot more people willing to say, “Anxiety is taking a toll on my life.”
COLLEEN (FROM TAPE): That's actually a good thing.
LUANA: I think it's a fantastic thing, because we know how to treat anxiety. And so if we're talking about it at least we can identify and do something about it instead of just being paralyzed in silence about it.
COLLEEN: Enter the startups. Since the pandemic, money has flowed into mental health tech startups; $5.5 billion-dollars just in 2021 alone.
SUE: There are already big players you might recognize, like Calm and Headspace, which offer guided meditations. And voices so smoothing you might just fall asleep…I quite like Headspace founder Andy Puddicombe. Here he is in a Himalayan forest.
ANDY PUDDICOMBE: As you breathe in just imagine you're breathing in that fresh mountain air, as you breathe out just letting go of any tension in the body…
COLLEEN: Lovely. There's also any number of online platforms for talk therapy — the big names there include Talkspace or BetterHelp — and they've got their celebrity endorsements. Here's Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer…
MICHAEL PHELPS: Therapy can dramatically change your life — it helped me a lot — so you should try it for yourself. Brought to you by TalkSpace, therapy for all.
COLLEEN: But now the latest entrants – this is what we'll focus on for this podcast – are the makers of physical products that use design and sometimes even robotics to tackle anxiety.
SUE: Something you can actually hold in your hand.
COLLEEN: Exactly – or strap on your head, in the case of a VR headset. But let's start with something you can hold in your hand…
STEFANIE BROES: My name is Stefanie Broes, like Bruce Springsteen because it's similar.
COLLEEN (FROM INTERVIEW): I will remember that. Good.
COLLEEN: Like many of us, Stefanie sometimes has trouble sleeping.
SUE: She uses the meditation apps…
STEFANIE: And I really like using them, but still, when you're very anxious or stressed or panicked or worried, you do not always want to grab your phone and open an app and start tapping on stuff on your phone.
COLLEEN: One night, while laying awake, Stefanie came up with an idea for deep relaxation.
STEFANIE: I had to think of a mom having a baby on her chest and cradling the baby. The mom is breathing in a certain way and the baby actually feels this and connects with this, and mimics this.
SUE: Stefanie has a PhD in pharmaceutical sciences.
COLLEEN: She enlisted the help of her brother Michael.
STEFANIE: My brother is actually very handy and technical.
COLLEEN: And the two invented a device called Moonbird.
SUE: We have one right here – it's very sleek and it sort of expands and contracts in your hand.
STEFANIE: We came up with the idea of developing a tool that breathes for you and you don't have to think or count or listen or look at an app. You just have to feel this and breathe along with it.
COLLEEN: They spent a year developing the product.
STEFANIE: The first 250 Moonbirds, my brother and myself assembled on the attic of our parents the weeks before Christmas.
SUE: That was back in 2020.
COLLEEN (FROM INTERVIEW): Are you finding that people are very receptive to this idea and want moonbirds?
STEFANIE: On average we see that 70% of our customers are women, which is —
COLLEEN (FROM INTERVIEW): 70%, you said?
STEFANIE: 70, Yes.
COLLEEN (FROM INTERVIEW): 70%. That doesn't surprise me.
STEFANIE: Yes, exactly.
SUE: A 2021 study by the University of Chicago Medicine found that women experienced “alarmingly high rates” of mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, during the start of the pandemic.
STEFANIE: We mostly target on women because we see that they have these issues a bit more. I'm still very, very pleasantly surprised that we still reach the men as well, and that they're not too afraid of buying the product.
COLLEEN: Stefanie says most customers use the Moonbird for stress or sleeping problems. When she herself uses it, she estimates that she falls asleep within 6 minutes.
STEFANIE: I think five seconds breathing in, five seconds breathing out which works really well for me.
COLLEEN: Can you tell me a little bit about how many you've sold?
STEFANIE: We've sold over 10,000 devices.
Interviewer: Oh, wow.
COLLEEN: And the device is not inexpensive either — it's $199. But it reflects some trends in consumer behavior: a number of studies show that affluent customers in particular are using wearables or apps to track their health or vitals.
SUE: That's a good segway to talk about another device we have here.
COLLEEN: Yes, this is a little different than the Moonbird. So I have in the studio here, something called the Apollo Neuroscience Wearable.
SUE: It looks similar to an Apple Watch.
COLLEEN: Right. You can wear it around your wrist, or around your ankle, although I think it looks a bit like a court-ordered monitor.
KATHRYN FANTAUZZI: I actually have mine right now on my clip, which I can attach to my bra, which I do all the time.
COLLEEN: That's Kathryn Fantauzzi.
KATHRYN: I'm the CEO and co-founder of Apollo Neuroscience.
COLLEEN: And so with this wearable, it's connected via an app and you pick a setting, say, 'Fall Asleep' or 'Recover,' and it will start subtly vibrating.
SUE: Like, zapping you?
COLLEEN: No. You can feel it but it's not that noticeable. I'll let Kathryn explain.
KATHRYN: It's barely perceptible. It's essentially white noise for your body. You're supposed to be able to drive a car, work, go to sleep, do whatever you want to do while the program is running.
COLLEEN: Kathryn developed the wearable with her husband, Dr. David Rabin, a neuroscientist who studied chronic stress at University of Pittsburgh.
SUE: The concept is based on touch therapy.
KATHRYN: Our sense of touch is our fastest pathway to safety in the brain. If you think about a baby crying, baby cries, you pick the baby up, you rock the baby, baby stops crying. In its brain it goes, "My needs are being met."
COLLEEN: And so the Apollo wearable – whether it's on your wrist or ankle – is designed to soothe you in that same way. Say, for example, you're feeling anxious or stressed at work.
KATHRYN: They send these waves of vibration to your body that mimic what happens naturally when you deep breathe. You feel it on your skin, but your brain goes, “Hey, I’m safe. This email is not going to kill me."
COLLEEN: It's low-frequency sound waves, designed to retrain the nervous system.
SUE: By the way, I like how both of these women used babies and holding babies as a way to explain the technology.
COLLEEN: I thought that was interesting too! As Katherine says…
KATHERINE: We are all big babies!
COLLEEN: And not only that, but we're big babies, living in a state of overdrive, all the time, thanks in large part to technology.
KATHERINE: We're all freaking out and we're wondering, “Why am I stressed out? Why can't I sleep?" Well, it's not normal. We collectively take more pictures in two minutes than anyone took in 1950. We absorb more news in the first 15 minutes of being awake than anyone in 1950 absorbed in a week.
SUE: You've been wearing this device for a while. What do you think about it?
COLLEEN: Yeah, they sent me one to try, for this story – and I'm not getting compensated in any way to say this – but I actually do like it a lot. In fact, I find it kind of addictive. Something that really appeals to me — and I think any busy mom who is juggling work and life will relate to this — but I don't have time to meditate or take a yoga class. But I can easily put a vibrating wearable on my wrist and then go about my day or turn it on before I fall asleep.
SUE: So that's the big selling point for this device.
COLLEEN: Yes, for me, and many others. Katherine says about 100,000 people use the Apollo.
KATHERINE: I will never tell someone not to meditate or not to do a wellness practice. You should. In the end, a lot of us are very busy. The idea behind Apollo is that you can get the benefits of meditation without having to meditate.
SUE: It almost sounds too good to be true. Do you feel less stressed — does it actually help you sleep better?
COLLEEN: I really think it might – at least, it's another tool in the toolbox for me. Apollo says scientific research validates its claims.
KATHERINE: We did a trial at the University of Pittsburgh where we showed that non-meditators with an Apollo on, when compared to meditators without an Apollo, the non-meditators brainwave states caught up to the meditators in about 10 minutes.
COLLEEN: And in yet another study…
KATHERINE: …a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled crossover trial…
COLLEEN: They gave people a task to complete in a very limited time, and those without an Apollo wearable…
KATHERINE: Nothing happened that we didn't expect. People start to sweat, their heart rate goes up, they can't focus, and their performance goes way down.
COLLEEN: But for those wearing the Apollo device…
KATHERINE: People's biometrics of stress went down. Their heart rate slowed to a normal level.
COLLEEN: And the list goes on. Now, not everyone likes it – there are plenty of detractors out there, people who reviewed the device and said it didn't do what it promised – or that it was too pricey — it's about $400 – but bottom line, investors seem to like it. The company has raised $22 million dollars to date.
SUE: I haven't tried it myself but I have a healthy amount of skepticism.
COLLEEN: Fair enough. When we come back, we'll tell you about one more startup in the "anxiety tech" space.
SUE: And it's trippy…literally!
COLLEEN: We'll be right back.
COLLEEN: Welcome back. We've been talking about anxiety tech…
SUE: All the new gadgets that promise to chill you out.
COLLEEN: So last year I went to the Collision Conference in Toronto, where I learned about this unusual startup.
TRIPP VIDEO: Welcome to TRIPP.
COLLEEN: The best way to describe it is…software that mimics a psychedelic experience.
TRIPP: …bring your attention to the experience unfolding around you.
SUE: It sounds…a little out there, right?
COLLEEN: Right. But some big names are backing it, including the electronics giant LG, which actually named it a finalist in its "Mission of the Future" program.
SUE: So to view the software, you need to put on a virtual reality headset.
COLLEEN. That's right. And when you do, you're literally taken to another world that's sort of pulsating and beautiful — at least, that's what I understand. I wasn't actually able to try this one, as I don't have a VR headset. But here's founder Nanea Reeves.
NANEA: Instead of telling you to inhale and exhale, we actually show you your breath, like stardust coming in and out of your mouth, and make you feel like you're floating to another dimension.
SUE: So, we're not looking at a waterfall or a beach, which I would have assumed.
COLLEEN: No. Apparently your classic medication scenes don't translate well into virtual reality.
NANEA: I found some research out of UCLA where they had highlighted that in the absence of different sensory inputs — like, all of us know what a beach should feel like on the skin, what it should smell like when we're there. In the absence of that, there's this sensory dissonance that gives you a, "There's something wrong with this environment."
COLLEEN: That led her to some other research that looks at…
NANEA: …how to use virtual environments to trigger states of awe and wonder.
Let's give you experiences that are native to VR, that you cannot have in this world.
SUE: Like shimmering trees and glowing planets.
NANEA: We found that psychedelic-informed experiences, like fractals and geometry, had a calming effect on people in these virtual environments.
COLLEEN: Nanea has a deep background in the gaming and mobile app industries, and was an early investor in Oculus headsets, and she's brought that all to Tripp.
SUE: Which has raised $26 million to date.
COLLEEN (FROM INTERVIEW): Is there anything you can tell me about the traction, your track record?
NANEA: I think we're very close to 7 million sessions in VR. It's not insignificant. One thing I will say, we are in a major technology evolution. If you look in the late '90s, computing was on the desk. In 2000, computing started to move to mobile. The same thing is going to happen with computing moving from the hand to the head. It is well underway. I would say we're around three to five years away from a major shift.
SUE: So I guess we'll all be walking around with VR headsets on.
COLLEEN: Well, I'm not sure we'll be completely immersed in the metaverse…but to Nanea's point, we may very well be seeing more and more mindfulness and who knows, perhaps even talk therapy, delivered via VR
NANEA: Our goal is to get present in this category of mindfulness on every meaningful new device, and really look at it from an approach of layered reality. When you need to go deep into full immersion you can do that and connect to self, but also connect to others in these community environments. We think of it more like an ecosystem, but spatial computing is going to drive a huge amount of innovation in the world.
COLLEEN: And of course Nanea — and all the startup founders we talked to — say that technology should not replace prescription drugs or in-person therapy. But there are some really promising innovations out there.
SUE: It's a whole new world. We thank all the women who talked with us about anxiety tech
COLLEEN: And we thank you for listening.