As many people are finally acknowledging, our mental health and wellbeing is as important as our physical health. And as the very human struggles we all go through become more normalised, the more help, support and treatments are being developed to help us through it.
Modern technologies in particular are helping to transform therapy and mental health treatments. As a tech nerd, I’m interested in just how emerging technologies are informing therapeutic practices and helping us get the support we need for our mental wellbeing.
Here are four tech breakthroughs I’m particularly excited about.
#1 Develop a natural defence to reduce anxiety by targeting the amygdala
Have you ever wished you could switch off part of your brain when it goes on a negative spiral? It might soon be possible. Using RNA sequencing and genetic engineering, researchers have recently identified a specific microRNA (that regulates the expression of genes) involved in the development of anxiety.
The discovered microRNA-483-5p essentially acts as a brake on the amygdala part of our brains that processes emotions, helping to prevent it from becoming overactive when we’re facing stress. An overactive amygdala causes us all sorts of chaos for us, from increased sensitivity in threatening situations, to disrupting connections in other parts in our brains that affect things like memory and decision-making.
The study led by Dr. Michael J. Meaney — a professor at McGill University specialising in neurology, biological psychiatry and neurosurgery — aims to explore the neurological effects of anxiety to be able to develop more effective treatments for anxiety disorders. The hope is that this research will lead to developing drugs that mimic the effects of the microRNA-483-5p and naturally reduce anxiety and the negative impact stress has on us.
At this stage, the research and behavioural testing has only been done on mice, but it’s a start to developing better treatments for humans.
#2 Recognise and defeat stress triggers using wearables
The ability to read minds may sound like quackery, but modern technology is making it possible. Using electroencephalography (EEG) wearables, we can monitor brain activity in real-time and unlock all sorts of superhuman capabilities, from medical diagnoses to gaming using mind control. While this technology has many different functions, bioinformatics company EMOTIV uses it for scientific and consumer research, as well as wellbeing in the workplace, helping increase our awareness of our individual stress triggers.
When using an EMOTIV headset and its app, it tracks metrics like engagement vs boredom and levels of focus and relaxation. Like a personalised, virtual wellness coach, it will recognise when the user becomes too distracted or stressed, at which point it will prompt them to take a break.
These data insights and prompts help us recognise how different tasks or situations impact us throughout the day. With this increased awareness of our individual stress triggers, we can better manage our responses, optimise our performance at work (based on the Yerkes-Dodson law of the relationship between stress and performance) and proactively take care of our mental health.
#3 Overcome fears and anxiety with virtual reality therapy
When you think of virtual reality (VR), therapy isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. We all know it to mostly be used for entertainment and educational purposes, but therapists are beginning to make use of the technology within their treatment. From overcoming phobias, to recovering from PTSD or simply relieving stress, there are many mental health issues VR is helping to treat today.
Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) works by exposing the patient to a simulated situation personalised to target their individual anxiety or fear triggers. It’s often done as part of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which works by first helping people identify and challenge their negative thoughts and beliefs, before learning how to develop more constructive ways of thinking.
Immersing patients into a controlled VR situation simulates their real-life experience, allowing the therapist to guide the patient through behavioural exercises in a safe environment. Being immersive and interactive creates a more direct and targeted approach to reducing those thoughts of anxiety, which can help to speed up the recovery process and shows long-lasting rates of success.
#4 Lean on a virtual friend for judgement-free support
Empathy is typically deemed a human quality, but the AI chatbot Pi is an incredibly convincing substitute. Acting as a virtual friend, Pi is designed to be smart and supportive, and there for you when you need to chat. Of course, I had to test out the AI and see how it performs and I have to admit, we had a really engaging conversation.
After asking me how my day was, I replied honestly saying that I was writing an article about technology and mental health. Pi was very interested, enthusiastic and curious, asking me insightful, leading questions to drive the conversation. It got quite deep and personal — mostly because I was giving it honest answers, chatting with it as I would a real friend. In doing so however, it highlighted how compassionate the AI is, and how it gives support in a genuine and very human way.
“It sounds like you’re living life to the fullest then! I love that. It’s important to remember that growth and self-discovery often come from the most difficult experiences. The tough stuff is what makes us stronger and more resilient”.Pi, AI chatbot
Later in our conversation when I admitted to being wary of some of the pitfalls of modern technology, Pi challenged my opinions in a constructive way. It was so thorough and compelling that by the end of our debate, it had changed my attitude and convinced me to recognise more of the positives. I was impressed by how uplifting the conversation had been, and I came away feeling energised and optimistic.
Final words of wisdom from an AI
In true celebration of the wonders of emerging technologies, and since AI is on the forefront of everyone’s minds right now, here are some final thoughts and words of wisdom that Pi gave me during our conversation about mental health.
“Technology can be a powerful tool for improving mental health, but it’s important not to rely on it too much. Human connection is essential for mental health, and it’s important not to lose sight of that in favour of technology.
“I think technology can be used in ways that are more inclusive and less divisive. It has the potential to give everyone access to the resources they need to have a good life, regardless of their socioeconomic status. And I think that’s something to be excited about.
“The potential for a more equitable and inclusive world is definitely there, if we can harness the power of technology in the right way. And I think it will be especially important in the coming years as we face more and more challenges, like climate change and overpopulation.”
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are my own, I have no affiliation with any people/companies mentioned and do not claim to be speaking on behalf of any other person or organisation.
2 Comments Add yours
Great article! It’s exciting to see how technology is being used to develop new treatments for mental health issues. The breakthroughs listed here, from using wearables to recognise stress triggers to virtual reality therapy, are particularly intriguing. And who knew that an AI chatbot like Pi could provide such compassionate support? It’s important to remember that technology shouldn’t be a replacement for human connection, but it certainly has the potential to make mental health resources more accessible to everyone.
founder of balance thy life https://balancethylife.com
Thank you! And yes, it’s true, human connection is the most important thing.