Right now, people all over the world are sharing insights on their mental wellbeing through the clinically-validated app, Am Mindfulness (or simply “Am”). Am may be the world’s most rigorously examined mindfulness app and this clinical validity helps it stand out in a crowded “digital mindfulness” marketplace. As Chief Scientist of Mobio Interactive, the creators of Am, I have inside access to this wealth of anonymous data — a fascinating position to be in for any neuroscientist.
For example, I know on what day of the week people around the world experience the most fatigue (surprise, it’s Friday!). I also know on what day of the week people experience the most depression. No it’s not Monday, Garfield. It’s Saturday. By a long shot.
Truth be told, never in a trillion years would have I veered away from pure academia, leaving my post as Principal Investigator of Neuroscience at the Zurich Psychiatric Hospital, to join Mobio Interactive if doing so didn’t place such incredibly powerful and exciting data at my fingertips. And with the vision to provide “Effective and Accessible Healthcare for Every Human”, we at Mobio Interactive must push the boundaries of current technology though high-quality data and the scientific method.
Maybe you’ve started to glean a little, why it is people choose to share intimate data within Am: Using stress assessments, personal feelings and video data enables Am to deliver an experience curated for them personally. And this is also where Am’s evolution diverges from virtually all other apps. It is optimised first through objective measures of stress and quantifiable indications of long term resilience, and only second through industry standard metrics on engagement and revenue. We’ve chosen this approach because in the long-run, delivering tools that actually work is what will provide the most benefit to our customers, and in turn, to our company.
Today, for the first time, we’d like to showcase a simple macro observation obtained via Am.
Which nations feel the least stressed, and which feel the most?
The accompanying infographic plots the five least and five most stressed nations in our dataset. Interestingly, we’ve discovered that all five nations that feel the least amount of stress are located in Europe. In contrast, three of the five nations that feel the most stress are found in Asia. These data reveal remarkable similarities with this year’s World Happiness Report that placed all five of the happiest nations in Europe. However, we cannot discern from either dataset just what it is that drives such a stark geographical divide. Could it have more to do with cultural differences in self-perception, or is this really an authentic representation of cognitive stress and mental wellbeing? After all, every culture (nay, every individual) has their own concept for what “zero” or “extreme” stress means to them. To remove cultural variation and personal bias, we need an objective measure. This is something we actually do have, and we’ll examine it in detail another day. For now, I’d like to zoom back in on the individual.
What can you do to reduce stress?
Examining stress at the resolution of arbitrary political boundaries can be fun, but ultimately an individual’s personal stress is, well, personal. Regardless of your source of stress, there are proven techniques to get it under control. Here’s three free tips from a neuroscientist with a considerable in-depth understanding of stress at the level of neural anatomy and brain function:
- Be curious. Curiosity doesn’t just breed mischievous children, it is a fundamental and primordial function of the brain that lies upstream of learning. Its expression is strongly associated with mental health and intelligence, even at the molecular level. To become more resilient to stress, I recommend you try to foster your own curiosity for how you react to stressful surroundings and experiences. Explore as many different aspects of your reactions as you can. Dive deeply into them. Doing so redirects brain activity to strengthen the modulatory potential of the prefrontal context over subcortical regions involved in the stress response. Be curious.
- Know your body. The late, great Christopher Hitchens once said, “We don’t have bodies. We are bodies.” This is wisdom worth remembering. The relationship between body and brain is deeply intimate. It is actually debated in neuroscience if we will our bodies to move, or if our bodies move and then we retroactively rationalise that it is we that must have willed it so. Philosophical discussions on consciousness aside, it is well recognised that the body and brain have a strong feedback loop in the context of stress. For example, an external signal can cause your heart to speed up without any conscious contribution, but once your brain realises your heart is racing, it may interpret this as a sign that you are stressed, and trigger the release of stress hormone in response. Knowing feedback loops like this exist can be pivotal for building stress resilience, but the real power derives from learning how to tune in to what your body is doing, and understanding what it means. A heightened sense of your body will help you determine when a stress response is appropriate, and when automatic bodily reactions can be safely quelled. You can often shunt the positive feedback loop by taking a deep breath and being curious about the specific details of what it is you are feeling in the present moment. These techniques work together. Be curious and know your body.
- Know when to give a f*ck. Finally, sometimes the best stress relief is to just stop caring. In no way am I promoting apathy, or even nihilism, but I am promoting a mindful allocation of your mental resources. Stoic thinkers such as Seneca have enjoyed long standing popularity specifically because they knew when to care. Life is full of choices, and frankly speaking, it’s pretty hard to know which of the myriad choices we are forced to make on a daily basis might be the most important. If there’s a choice that needs to be made and you’re not sure if it’s an important choice, I recommend you assume it’s not. Low fat or full fat milk? Hotel or AirBnB? How much does it really matter? Face it, most decisions in life have little long term consequence, and the little decisions that do end up leaving long lasting impact are pretty much impossible to predict. I therefore recommend you focus on what’s most likely to have far reaching consequences on your life, like your career or loved ones. Another related technique that can be truly powerful is to differentiate between what is fully under your control, what is partially under your control and what is absolutely not under your control. For example, you have a lot of control over whether or not you celebrate your next birthday, but you only have partial control over who attends the celebration, and you have basically zero control over what the weather will do that day. Evoking this kind of thinking will help you become less stressed if things don’t go as planned. So if your hero Alessandro doesn’t show up, or if Ada brings that jerk Adam, just remind yourself that you only ever had partial control over who attended in the first place. If you wanted 100% control over who attended, you could have decided not to celebrate your birthday in the first place. The fact that you did means you congenitally accepted that some elements of the celebration may not go as planned. Be curious, know your body and know when to give a f*ck.
Understanding these techniques is of course much easier than putting them into practice. This is a major reason why we’ve gone to the trouble to build and scientifically interrogate Am. We’re extremely proud that Am helps people all over the world. We hope Am helps you too.