(HT Illustration: jayachandran)
(HT Illustration: jayachandran)

A world of worry: Inside the industry anxiety boom

Apps, games, stickers and web series are rushing to help you relax. But can you buy your way out of the sense of dread?
UPDATED ON FEB 21, 2021 07:12 AM IST

Weighted blankets, anti-anxiety patches, virtual yoga guides — even an animated Netflix show created in conjunction with a meditation app — the anxiety economy has boomed in the pandemic.

Meditation apps such as Headspace and Calm, Let’s Meditate and Simple Habit are finding more takers for their videos, podcasts and guided sessions that promise to help soothe anxiety and improve sleep and productivity; an American company has launched a range of stickers that promise to lessen anxiety, improve sleep and boost mood through “frequencies believed to have harmonising effects”; and Netflix released Headspace Guide to Meditation on January 1.

The stickers cost about 400 each. Most of the apps work on the freemium model where initial sessions are free but you have to pay as much as 10,000 annually for extended use and premium features.

A big draw for those signing up has been the idea that wellness aids can ease some of the sense of dread over the general state of things, the sudden changes in the pandemic year and the looming uncertainty of what comes next — and replace it, in some measure, with a bit of happiness and calm.

“The show attracted me because of the happy animation in the trailer,” says financial consultant Kanyaka Bhattacharya, 36, referring to Headspace Guide... “I always thought of myself as too restless to meditate, but I finished Season 1 and it has helped me identify some of my negative emotions and made me think about achieving some calm in my very busy and chaotic life.”

That sense of calm or contentment is the new high many are chasing. “There are some broad issues many people are facing in the pandemic, even more so than before — they can’t sleep, they are feeling anxious, distressed or sad. The apps are specifically marketed to cover these lighter, day-to-day issues,” says Vandana Choudhary, a clinical psychologist at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

The products and platforms that have emerged or come into focus in the lockdown have led people to think about their mental health, Choudhary adds. Greater awareness has meant more people seeking solutions. “As a result, there has been a normalisation of distress and this, according to me, is a greater good. People are realising that they are not alone in their suffering.”

Question everything you come across online though, Choudhary says. In the anxiety-alleviation business, there is no predetermined standard of service, no quality control. There’s just a buffet of often-confusing options. “Medical authorities should have a checklist before letting apps or products float into the market. There should, for instance, be a certified psychologist consulting on every app and clear norms for the clinical testing of new products,” Choudhary says.

The anxiety industry also has an amplifier effect to watch out for. It can lead to the over-labelling and mislabelling of emotions, with the result that every sadness becomes depression, every worry becomes anxiety. “When someone seeks help based on this kind of inaccurate self-labelling, it goes wrong from the very start. People should realise that worry is normal and that it’s okay to be sad sometimes,” Choudhary says.

There is also the danger that people with a clinical condition will be misled into thinking they can treat it with a patch or an app.

“Communication is very important. Distress should always be communicated to a professional,” says Dr Manoj Kumar Sharma, a clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru. “But what happens when people are already using a product or an app? It means they have developed a habitual pattern of using a product to relieve distress. They may not be as open to other alternatives. The habitual pattern will slow down recovery.”

In an important aside, the doctors point out that stress relief need not be bought. Rather than the aromatic oils and meditation headbands, create space for relaxation and leisure activities, spend time in the outdoors, talk to family, friends or peers. Free yourself from the screens, make time for self-care, and see if that doesn’t do the trick.

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