Holidays Stressing You Out? There's an App for That!

Technology is enmeshed in every facet of our daily lives – and the next frontier may be our mental wellness.

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Lisa Kleinsorge ’11 is a vice president in charge of international development at Headspace, an app that offers guided meditation to support mental well-being. With guided meditation sessions and programs tailored to different issues, such as sleep, stress, and anxiety, Headspace aims to tackle mental wellness from the convenience of your phone. Meditation has been shown to ease some of the symptoms of anxiety disorders, which affect an estimated 40 million adults in America. A dependence on technology is often cited as a catalyst for mental health problems; but Kleinsorge says technology may also offer an antidote, with apps like Headspace offering proven help in reducing stress, improving focus, and decreasing aggression. With the holidays—and their potential for stress—upon us, Kleinsorge talks about the increasing popularity of meditation and emphasis on mental wellness, and offers tips for staying stress-free during the holidays.

Do you see a rise in Headspace downloads around the holidays?

Yes. To start, a lot of people take time off of work and are a bit more relaxed, spending time with their families, so they might have more time to experiment with tech. But this time of year, a lot of people are also focused on making resolutions. I know I am definitely starting to think about my New Year’s resolutions and what I want to do better. So that is usually a huge trigger for apps in our category to be used and downloaded. Many people want to reduce stress in their lives and be in a more mindful state and a healthier state, so this is the time they check in on how their last year went and how they hope their next year will be.

What are your responsibilities as the vice president of international at Headspace?

Headspace is already available in almost every country, but it is only available in English right now. I am working to localize the apps for various international markets. Officially, I am looking at Europe, Latin America, and Asia right now. A long-term goal of mine is to make the Headspace curriculum and guide accessible to everyone. So that means localizing, translating, and also really working the markets and growing the products in those markets.

Are your users are more concentrated in urban areas than in the rest of the country?

Yes, but often the early adoption of any app starts on the West and East Coasts. People on the coasts tend to be tech savvy, ahead of the times, and eager to embrace a healthier lifestyle. In the case of Headspace, people in urban areas were already more familiar with mindfulness and meditation practices.

Do you think there’s also the correlation that people in urban areas are more stressed or overwhelmed?

That might be another reason, but not necessarily. If you look into the Midwest, just in the US, for example, people have different stressors, whether it be job loss or something else. And that is equally stressful, just in a different way. So yes, urban areas are stressful because of the noise, traffic, and living in the city, but there is a level of mental stress that exists everywhere in the country.

Do you think apps like Headspace, that promote mental well-being, have the ability to make mental-health practices more commonplace in our culture?

Yes, that’s really big. I think that with the emergence of products like Headspace, people are openly talking about doing meditation practices and it is getting very much destigmatized. For instance, right now, people say they are “Headspacing” and it’s becoming a real term. It’s about people being more vulnerable and being more real. I think the whole trend with apps like ours is helping to normalize mental healthcare. I believe mental health treatment will be considered as important as physical health treatment in the next 10 years.

Since your job is to bring Headspace to the world, do you find it more difficult to foster that understanding in other countries?

Americans are really good about it, but in Germany and France, for instance, no one is talking about those things. There is a lot of work ahead of us; it’s challenging. A lot of it is about how we phrase our messaging. Outside of America, we might say that the product reduces stress and helps you be more productive, which is a positive side of mental health.

What do you see for the future of Headspace? Will there be a time when everyone has a product like this on their phones?

I think so. Who knows where Headspace will be, but it definitely won’t always just be for meditation, there will be other aspects that can teach you how to live and how to be healthy and happy. And, one day, we might not even still have apps on our phones, or have phones at all, we might just have our virtual personal assistants. But for now, we have a lot of ideas for other directions Headspace can go. A lot of them I can’t talk about yet, but what I can tell you is that Headspace will definitely be moving into the B2B space. Companies like Google and LinkedIn are already offering it to their employees, because they see the benefits of it. Headspace even partnered with the NBA to give access to team members and employees. It increases productivity but also increases employees’ happiness.

How do scientific research and clinical trials come into play when building the product?

Headspace has an in-house science department led by Dr. Megan Jones Bell and they are constantly conducting clinical trials. The clinical trials give us the data to back up the effectiveness of the app. We’ve actually created an entire sub-company called Headspace Health, and the purpose of that company is to make Headspace available to healthcare providers as a treatment for chronic illnesses. This would allow doctors to prescribe Headspace directly to their patients like they would a medication.

What are your top tips for staying calm this holiday season?

To start, if you have to travel, try to remember that whether you’re stuck in a line or your journey is delayed, you can use that time to unwind and relax and arrive feeling fresh rather than frustrated. When you arrive at your destination, use breathing as a tool to stay centered. Becoming more aware of your breath helps you let go of tension in the body and it also helps calm your mind. Lastly, remember that you can use your technology in a mindful way. Rather than mindlessly scrolling on your phone while sitting in the house, use it as a tool to connect with others in a positive way over the holidays.

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