Healthy Minds app provides relief from pandemic stress – University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Health Minds Program app measures your level of well-being and watches how it changes over time.

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It was the right product for the right time.

While no one could have planned for the COVID-19 pandemic, Healthy Minds Innovations found itself in a position to meet the mental health needs of a world in crisis with one of its signature programs.

The Healthy Minds Program app offers a guided path to well-being, grounded in neuroscience and the concept that people can train their minds to be more calm, focused and resilient. It was unique and innovative in a broad field of well-being and meditation apps.

“When COVID-19 hit, we heard from so many people that it immediately became clear that we were witnessing the beginning of a mental health crisis, in addition to the health crisis and financial chaos,” says Cortland Dahl, Healthy Minds Innovations Chief Contemplative Officer and Research Scientist at the Center. “It was also clear that there wasn’t any time to waste, so we sprang to action and started sharing guided practices and insights from our research to help people cope with all the uncertainty and anxiety.”

Healthy Minds Innovations come out with the app at the end of 2019, as it sought to translate science into tools to cultivate and measure well-being. In March 2020, HMI made the app free, making it easier to get it into the hands of people who needed it most.

Photo: Portrait of Richard Davison

Richard Davison

It meets the goal Professor Richard Davidson had in mind in 2014 when he founded Healthy Minds Innovations (HMI), an external nonprofit affiliated with UW–Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds (which Davidson also founded and directs): To bring the decades of neuroscience and well-being research into everyday life.

Between the app’s guided meditations, offered with different teachers, durations and styles (active and seated), are short, podcast-style lessons which explain the science behind the practices. In these lessons, Davidson, Dahl and collaborators, explain the “how” of well-being, a framework recently the subject of a published paper in the leading scientific journal, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

As the world turned inward, many people sought affordable, inclusive and accessible mental health support. The Healthy Minds Program app was an ideal lifeline for people in need,  as they faced loneliness, financial instability, grief, health fears, social isolation and the new challenge of working remotely,

The app expanded to 174 countries, culminating in over 200,000 downloads, and began offering “Meditations for this Moment,” like Clarity in Uncertain Times, Our Common Humanity, and Grateful Awareness in Difficult Times.

These meditations even grew to encompass other timely needs, like the polarization of the U.S. election and the spotlight on the need for racial justice, adding more meditation teachers to address some of these topics and provide more inclusive content. This content featured such practices as, Dealing with Election Anxiety, Healing Division and Healing Intergenerational Trauma. Many of these new meditations were featured across national media, reaching an even greater audience.

Some of the reaction is visible on reviews of the Healthy Minds Program app on the Google Play Store:

One user wrote: “Thank you for helping me during a testing time. I’m feeling more connected with myself and the people around me. This app has been a lifesaver.”

Another wrote: “….When I found the app I was near emotional and physical exhaustion… I still have stressors, but now I’m clear, calm and stable! So grateful! Thank you isn’t enough! Life altering!”

As the team continues to innovate and expand its offerings, there are many opportunities to relieve the suffering of individuals.

There are already multiple studies underway using the Healthy Minds Program app, including its use with teachers and staff members in the Madison Metropolitan School District to support the increased work stress during the pandemic. In addition, there are plans for translations of the app to make it more inclusive for non-English speakers, and focused content for undergraduate students.

UW–Madison contributes $20.8 billion per year to the Wisconsin economy, and UW–Madison related start-ups contribute an additional $10 billion. Read more here. 

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