Living through a global pandemic, “once-in-a-lifetime” weather events, systemic racism, gridlocked government, economic precarity, and zero social safety net makes the recent rise in anxiety and stress for Americans fairly easy to understand.
In a popular 2020 meme using the “Full House” theme song, TikTokers showcased their “life cast,” and comedian @justme.rod captured millennial anxiety perfectly:
@justme.rodWhat a year! Couldn’t have done it without these folks 🤗 #Bye2020 #work #millennial #workfromhome #office♬ original sound – fishwad
The average American believes they’re under an unhealthy amount of stress, with work (64%) and money (60%) rating high as significant sources—making them the most commonly mentioned personal stressors according to the American Psychological Association.
But this kind of chronic stress has been on the rise for some time, stemming from what psychologists call a “biological mismatch” between life today and evolutionary precedent. Worrying over finances, productivity, running a business, or the news cycle activates a mechanism meant for survival—the “flight or fight” response—that never gives our bodies a chance to recover.
“Humans haven’t evolved much genetically over the last 200 years,” psychologist Paul Napper told Psychology Today. “But if you think about how people lived 200 years ago versus how we live today, it’s really shocking. There’s a struggle to adapt to such a different reality.”
That translates to a feeling most Americans know all too well: burnout. “Pundits spend a lot of time saying ‘This is not normal,’ but the only way for us to survive, day to day, is to normalize the events, the threats, the barrage of information, the costs, the expectations of us. Burnout isn’t a place to visit and come back from; it’s our permanent residence,” writes Anne Helen Petersen for Buzzfeed.
If you’re feeling anxious trying to juggle it all, you can join the millions of Americans using technology to try and relax, from meditation apps to virtual therapy, in this $450 billion self-care industry:
Research proves meditation can help with stress, which is maybe why it’s become so popular over the last few years. “When we experience chronic stress, stress from which we experience no break, it can tax our immune system and cause more severe problems like anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbance,” Megan Bell Jones, Chief Science Officer at Headspace, said in a press release. “Meditation helps deactivate the emotional center of the brain, which is responsible for emotional reactivity that keeps us hooked to news cycles and fuels chronic stress. When we help our brains stay grounded, we are better able to engage the rational part of our brains. This can help us understand information and make decisions from a place of fact versus panic.”
Taking a pause just to breathe has more benefits than you’d think. “The ultimate gift of meditation is that it helps us come home to a space of presence that is large enough for whatever we encounter. And it’s from that space that we can actually live from who we most want to be,” psychologist Tara Brach said in a Vox interview. “When we’re in fight-flight-freeze mode, our limbic system has basically hijacked us, and we lose contact with our prefrontal cortex. Mindfulness reconnects us with that.”
Downloads for mental health apps like Calm, Liberate, and Headspace increased dramatically in April of 2020, up to 10 million in one month. Calm saw 3.9 million downloads (a 31% increase), and Headspace saw 1.5 million in April alone. Each of these apps has a few things in common: they promise a sense of calm—and an SOS button you can press when things become too much.
And in such stressful times, that translates to big business: market insights company Prophecy estimates mindfulness apps represented $153.6 million in 2019 and is set to grow to a $341.9 million market by 2029, with a CAGR of 8.3%.
But meditation isn’t the only part of self-care that’s gone virtual. More people than ever are choosing to combat stress with professional help, removing some of the stigma placed on therapy from earlier generations. Online therapy helps “normalize mental health care, especially among generations now who are so accustomed to interacting with people using technology,” psychologist Lindsay Henderson told the American Psychological Association. “It just eliminates so many barriers.”
Popular online services like American Well, TalkSpace, BetterHelp, and Breakthrough offer various ways for individuals to connect to therapists, such as texting, live chat, or video calls. You can choose your own therapist or allow the algorithm to match you to a licensed professional specializing in whatever you need, from LGBTQ+ issues to relationship advice.
TalkSpace is by far the most popular, with over 1 million users and receiving more than $4 million in grants from the National Institute of Health. “At a time when America’s mental health is in crisis, it is crucial experts find the most optimal solution for patients, including how they seek therapy and the various forms of care and treatment available,” said Neil Leibowitz, Chief Medical Officer at Talkspace, in a press release.
In the past, employee wellness programs were a way to fight burnout and increase productivity and retention—during the pandemic, it’s become a survival tactic for many businesses that are finding that employees need more support.
“As leaders, we do all we can to create the conditions for our employees to feel supported,” said Louisa Cartwright, VP of People Operations at Headspace, in a press release. “Psychological safety should be a top priority. How might we help to empower our employee communities with regular, consistent, and trusted information allowing them to make the right decisions, specific to their personal needs, as well as for those around them.”
Especially with traditional fitness and wellness benefits, like in-office gyms, closed for the foreseeable future, businesses must tailor their offerings to best help their employees—not only to keep them productive but to build a community while isolated at home.