One night a few years ago in Belgium, Stefanie Broes, a pharmaceutical scientist, was lying awake with insomnia when she came up with an idea for a product that just might trigger deep relaxation.
She pictured a mom cradling a baby on her chest, where “the mom is breathing in a certain way, and the baby actually feels this and connects with this, and mimics this,” she says. Unable to shake the idea, she enlisted the help of her brother, Michael – “he’s very handy and technical” – and the two in 2020 created Moonbird, a slim device that expands and contracts in your hand, setting a pace for steady breathing. “You can elicit immediate effects, which has an impact on your nervous system,” she says.
Moonbird is one of many new companies – it’s hard to come up with a precise number – using design and sometimes robotics to tackle one of the modern world’s most prevalent health problems: skyrocketing rates of anxiety. While well-funded startups for years have set aim on mental health, offering apps for guided meditation (think Calm, Headspace) or an online platform for talk therapy (such as Talkspace or BetterHelp), these new entrants offer something far more tangible — whether it’s a physical product you hold in your hand, or a virtual-reality headset that you strap on to visit an immersive environment, or a vibrating wearable that you attach to your wrist or ankle to calm your nerves.
Recent research indicates that more consumers are open to trying devices that promise stress relief. In the U.S., some 97 million consumers used a device, app or website to track their health or vitals at least once in October 2022, according to data publisher PYMNTS. Just this past January, the Consumer Electronics Show – a bellwether for what’s next in tech – dubbed a robotic stress-busting breathing pillow called the Fufuly with an Innovations Award.
One could argue that it’s fitting the tech world — which always and loftily promises to solve everything through innovation, and has in part contributed to the anxiety our overburdened selves feel — has turned its attention to what ails us most.
It’s not just constant exposure to screens, of course, that’s causing our stress. Between 2020 and 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic triggered a massive 25% rise in anxiety and depression around the globe, according to the World Health Organization. Most experts attribute that to uncertainty, disruptions in daily routines and general concerns for health. Women in particular experienced “alarmingly high rates” of anxiety, a study at the University of Chicago Medicine found, possibly because more women shoulder caretaking responsibilities and many found themselves struggling to meet basic needs when the world shut down.
“Anxiety runs in a spectrum,” explains Dr. Luana Marques, a Harvard-based psychotherapist and former president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. A mild case might trigger a racing heartbeat, sweating and dizziness. More severe reactions include panic attacks, social phobia and post-traumatic stress disorders.
Anxiety levels have come down since the start of the pandemic, but not significantly, Marques says. In some cases, what was mild anxiety has deepened. “I’ve seen in my practice that 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,'” she says. “‘The anxiety is too much.'”
She has “absolutely” seen an uptick in products that address anxiety, and sees a value in the tech. “We can’t assume it will work, but it has the potential of working. If we’re mindful of the data behind it, I definitely think it’s promising.”
In California, Nanea Reeves is behind Tripp, a startup focused on creating mood-altering experiences in VR. It promises to connect users to a pulsating world of awe and wonder, where they can float away into another dimension and measure their breathing by watching stardust come in and out of their mouths. It raised an $11 million Series A round in 2021. Total investment is $26 million to date.
Reeves, a 15-year veteran of the gaming and mobile-app industries, says Tripp is less digital psychedelic and more mindfulness-meets-video-games tool. “How do we give the average person who’s dealing with the normal stressors of life the tools to strengthen their inner fitness?” she says. “That’s really our whole goal.”
Users have recorded 7 millions sessions – or “Tripps,” as the company dubs them – since its 2018 launch. Most users are young Millennial or Gen X men, but women make up a sizable group – 57% male versus 43% female. The company expects far more as technology in general continues to evolve. What once was desktop has moved to mobile; now, computing is moving “from the hand to the head” as consumers embrace headsets, Reeves says. “Spatial computing is going to drive a huge amount of innovation in the world.”
Like others in anxiety tech, she is quick to note that the tools should not be considered a replacement for professional treatment or an alternative to medication. It considers itself in the wellness space – not a medical device, which would require Food & Drug Administration approval – although Tripp is involved in clinical trials to study its effectiveness as a therapeutic product.
Another wellness device that touts science heavily in all its marketing is the Apollo Neuroscience wearable, made by wife-and-husband team Kathryn Fantauzzi and David Rabin, a neuroscientist who developed the tech while studying chronic stress at the University of Pittsburgh.
The device, which looks similar to an Apple Watch, can be worn around the wrist or ankle (yes, it looks like a court-ordered monitor). Some users — and Apollo says over 100,000 use its wearables — simply clip them onto their bras or clothes. The wearables then send low-frequency sound waves to “retrain” the nervous system.
“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,'” explains Fantauzzi. “Then your body regulates itself.”
The concept is appealing because it promises all the benefits of meditation without having to spend time chanting or closing your eyes or counting your breaths while picturing yourself on a beach – and who has time for all that? “I will never tell someone not to meditate or not to do a wellness practice. You should,” Fantauzzi says. But, “in the end, a lot of us are very busy.”
She herself wears the device for hours at a time. “It’s not zapping you,” Fantauzzi says. “It’s barely perceptible.” The technology is based on novel touch therapy, which explained in an oversimplified way is what happens when a mom picks up a crying baby, and the baby, in response, stops crying. The “touch” of sound waves essentially calms our nerves. “We are all big babies,” she says.
Whether any of these devices do exactly what they say is still debatable. Can a wearable really “retrain” the nervous system, and help you focus, reduce your stress and make you sleep better? Investors, at least, are betting on it. To date, Apollo has raised $22 million.
Fantauzzi says she has noticed many women founders in the field of anxiety technology – and she doesn’t think that’s a coincidence. Even before the pandemic, research showed that “women were twice as likely to say that they were stressed out and that they wanted to do something about it, as opposed to men,” she says. “Why are there all these companies led by women, that are addressing stress and sleep? It’s because we’re also the users of these products.” ◼