Technology and mental well-being might seem like profoundly antagonistic terms. However, there are excellent digital tools to help you reach mindfulness and to practice meditation. You can even use smartphone apps, virtual reality solutions and digital devices as a form of relieving stressing and achieving digital detox – as, after a while, you will be able to practice all types of anti-anxiety skills on your own. So, let The Medical Futurist show you how you can enhance your mental and emotional health with the help of technology.
“Just as we observe physical hygiene to stay well, we need to cultivate a kind of emotional hygiene too,” wrote the Dalai Lama on his Twitter-feed. There are three crucial points around His Holiness’ statement. First and foremost, the popularity of health-enhancing, physically active lifestyle is soaring worldwide. Nevertheless, there’s always room for improvement: the WHO says that globally, 23 percent of adults and 81 percent of school-going adolescents are not active enough. According to the organization, adults aged 18-64 should do at least 150 minutes of moderately intense physical activity each week, which is not unaccomplishable. Moreover, the numerically and statistically driven 21st-century mind could take a great inspiration and power from the various fitness trackers and wearables.
Secondly, emotional hygiene seems to be thrown into the shade nowadays. Somehow, the culture of busyness prevents us from squeezing some time for mental health into our packed schedules. Information is pouring on us from millions of communication channels; we are connecting with hundreds of ‘friends’ on social media, we are obsessed with data due to the fear of missing out and time management slices up our days into meetings and to-do-lists.
The pressure to perform and the stress to achieve is the air every busy-bee is breathing. However, turbulent lifestyle comes with a price. No wonder so many people have mental health issues. In the US, that means one in five adults – more than 40 million Americans! On the old continent, 27 percent of the population has to cope with mental disorders, which means 83 million struggling Europeans. In Asia, the prevalence of depression is 20 percent in Thailand, 19.9 percent in Taiwan, 19.4 percent in Korea, 17.5 in Malaysia and 16.5 percent in China.
Could technology help our quest for mindfulness and mental health?
These numbers are terrifying – and continuously growing. They show how important it would be to take the time to combat stress, pressure and self-distracting impulses on a daily basis. No matter how difficult that sounds. The first step would be to understand that our need for time to relax and reflect is necessary for our body and soul. Inner stability stems from the knowledge of ourselves, our needs and behaviors, as well as our environment. It does not come from controlled daily routines, rigid adherence to rules, mindless task completion and herd behavior which forces us to blindly follow popular trends. These, instead of resulting in harmony and overall stability, turn us into mindless robots.
One of the essential components of mental wellbeing is mindfulness; the way of being present in the moment and acknowledging our selves and our environment as it is. Not as it should be or shouldn’t be, but exactly as it is. As Ellen Langer, psychology professor dealing with mindfulness for over four decades, put it, if you are mindful, “it’s easier to pay attention. You remember more of what you’ve done. You’re more creative. You’re able to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. You avert the danger not yet arisen.” She added, that regarding technology, multitasking or information, the important thing is how they are dealt with, how they are taken in – and not the fact that they currently have a strong presence in our everyday lives.
Since technology is often linked to issues such as distraction, narcissism, expectation of instant gratification – and even depression, it may sound bizarre at first, but help might actually come from technology. Just as the Dalai Lama is tweeting out his wisdom – third important remark -, the use of the tools of modern life are not necessarily “our enemies” in the search for mental wellbeing. In fact, they can become our helpers if used wisely. Here are the ones The Medical Futurist recommends.
For stress management and meditation
Stress is not only an enormous emotional burden; it could be linked to a swarm of health conditions. No matter whether we’ are talking about heart disease, diabetes, depression, obesity, gastrointestinal problems or asthma, stress worsens them. Long hours in traffic jams, work deadlines, yelling bosses, and colleagues, taking care of the kids, participating in social life. The list of stress factors could go on and on. Moreover, many people have the impression that technology makes things even worse – constantly being connected through technology means work e-mails and messages pouring in, news alerts disrupting your day, social media invitations, friend requests, events, posts – a ton of information that could add to stress factors.
So how could a technological tool help manage stress which is induced partly by technologies? In The Medical Futurist’s experience, you cannot really meditate or de-stress effectively with technology on the long-run. However, it is an excellent tool for taking the first steps. It could work similarly to addictions: it might be easier for a technological society to get used to the idea of mediation and effective stress management through another digital tool, used less and less until completely losing it in the end.
1) PIP device
It is a tiny device coupled with a smartphone app designed to give immediate feedback about stress levels. The app shows a winter image that the user needs to transform into summer by holding the device between the thumb and index fingers while it measures skin conductivity for a few minutes. The longer I can keep my stress low, the faster the scene changes.
The task used to take me about 15 minutes, while my wife always did it in about 4 minutes. I stopped using it after a while, when I learned which methods I need to use for de-stressing, however, it was a useful tool for starting my journey towards mindfulness and meditation.
The brain sensing headband helps you get the most out of your meditation practice by giving you real-time biofeedback about what is going on in your mind. The Muse is not some dystopian headset trying to alter your brain. Instead its makers, InteraXon want to train you to modify it yourself. The routine is simple. You put the Muse headset on, you complete the breathing exercises to the sound of waves (neutral), storms (bad) and tweeting birds (good) which indicate how focused and calm you are. If your mind is too active, the Muse gives you feedback to help you clear your thoughts.
After many months of using the Muse, I decided to continue my meditation sessions without its help, but the immediate feedback taught me when I’m genuinely relaxed, and it was useful to listen to my brain activities in real-time.
3) Calm app
Calm was chosen as the app of the year in 2017, and The Medical Futurist team certainly understands why. You can learn how to meditate, have breathing sessions to relax your mind and body, listen to calming bedtime stories before you go to sleep or watch smoothing nature scenes any time during the day whenever you feel it’s necessary. Moreover, some bedtime stories are told by Stephen Fry, and you can also listen to the Wisdom of the Jungle or The Lost Grimm Fairy Tale.
When it comes to meditation, beautiful music and calming scenes guide you out of the grave hole of anxiety, depression or sleep disorders. The app also offers a large variety of meditations, such as body scan, walking, guided or unguided sessions.
The meditation app is recommended by actress Emma Watson, our favorite Mae from The Circle. Although that movie was a flop, Headspace is an app for you to keep in mind. It is the best choice for anyone who wants to learn how to meditate and how to release stress even during a busy day.
The daily guide only takes 10 minutes, helps focus and release anxiety, master meditation. If you get used to it, it will even help you form a beneficial habit. It has hundreds of themed sessions; you can use reminders or practice your weak points. It’s an instant get for your mental wellbeing!
Many mental health experts consider diaphragmatic breathing or deep belly breathing one of the most useful tools for stress relief. This app helps users learn this stress management skill to decrease the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ response, and helps with mood stabilization, anger control, and anxiety management.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America rated the app as very good, which is a great sign. It was developed by a branch of the US military, the Defense Health Agency and was initially designed for the military community. If it works for soldiers who are constantly thrown in highly stressful situations, it should work for civilians as well.
Did you notice that you can concentrate on your work assignments, on your thesis writing process or your creative work better when listening to music? The Los Angeles based company, Focus@Will, established in 2012 offers a unique service for people who already know their attention is only flawless when the right music is on.
Based on research in neuroscience, Focus@Will promises to determine your personality type through a couple of test questions; then it will offer the appropriate music genre to improve your focus. Based on their survey of 22,000 active users, focus time increased more than 200-400 percent.
Imagine that you are walking underwater: your body becomes light and translucent, your steps slower and more theatrical. The whole world seems to slow down with you. Now, imagine this scene as a point for meditation (except where you have to come to the surface for breathing). That experience is precisely what Deep is offering you with the help of virtual reality – excluding disturbing real-world conditions. Game designers, Owen Harris and Niki Smit, developed a VR game, where you control movements through your breathing.
With a customized controller strapped around your diaphragm and an Oculus Rift, you dictate your movement in a low-poly underwater VR through diaphragmatic breathing. Breath in to gently rise, and out to sink to the seabed. The point is meditative, but shoals of low-poly fish add to the joy of discovery.
Zen Zone is another relaxation game designed by Unello Design specifically for VR. It features two innovative relaxation sessions with beautifully relaxing music, which visualize the body and the breath in ways only possible in VR. You also get the chance to arrange your special “secret garden”, where you might find your inner peace.
Developer and musician Aaron Lemke leads the Texas-based design studio. Mostly interested in exploring the experiential side of VR, Unello created many of the first relaxation experience available for the Oculus Rift.
9) Fitbit’s Relax app
Fitbit has a Relax app on its Blaze and Ionic models. The app is a breathing exercise that can last for 3 or 5 minutes and is designed to help the user slow down breathing, as well as heart rate. It’s a quick yet still efficient exercise to find a few minutes of calmness every day. It also shows the progress you have made over time and how much you could reduce your heart rate during the exercise which guarantees that you come back to it day after day.
No matter whether you use devices, apps, virtual reality or any other tools, the important thing is to focus on your mental wellbeing at least once a day. Make time for it, give yourself a couple of minutes and pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. On the long run, mindfulness and general wellbeing will pay off. As Ellen Langer puts it, life consists only of moments, nothing more than that. So if you make the moment matter, it all matters. You can be mindful or mindless. You can win, you can lose. The worst case is to be mindless and lose. So when you’re doing anything, be mindful, notice new things, make it meaningful to you, and you’ll prosper.