It's not just you: We're all more stressed than we used to be.

"Collectively, the world is more stressed, worried, sad and in pain today than we've ever seen it," managing editor Mohamed Younis wrote in a foreword to Gallup's 2018 Global Emotions Report. Across 146 countries, more than one-third of interviewees said they experience frequent worry and stress.

To manage stress, we're turning somewhere familiar: our smartphones. The App Store's top 10 wellness apps brought in about 170 percent more revenue worldwide in Q1 2018 than they did in Q1 2017, according to research firm Sensor Tower. Together, those apps brought in around $27 million in revenue during 2018's first quarter.

Take a closer look at the data, however, and you'll notice one niche is grossly overrepresented. The top two apps, Calm and Headspace, which both center around mindfulness and meditation, took home 90 percent of the revenue generated by the top 10 apps during the quarter.

In other words, the self-care space may be hot, but there are plenty of opportunities left for entrepreneurs outside of the meditation circle.

Gaps Calling for Apps

As with every area of business, the key to doing well with self-care apps is differentiation. To give users something new:

1. Get them to spend time with others.
Smartphone users have plenty of social media options these days, but most social apps could hardly be considered tools for self-care. In fact, heavy social media use is linked to a variety of mental illnesses. Sixty-three percent of those who use Instagram, for example, say they feel miserable. The remaining 37 percent who say they feel happy, spend barely half as long using the social network.

To ward off stress, anxiety, and depression, it turns out, social interactions must be face to face. One app taking that research to market is Mappen, which encourages teens to spend more time with their friends by showing them on a map where friends are and what they're doing. Mappen co-founder Jared Allgood recently explained to Forbes that his goal was never to get teens entirely off social media, which he knew wouldn't work, but rather to make it easier for them to choose in-person time over screen time.

2. Take on the rising tide of drug abuse.
Any way the data on Americans' drug use is sliced, it doesn't look good. Nearly nine in 10 Americans surveyed by Pew Research center earlier this year say drug addiction is either a major or minor problem in their community. Pew's analysis of National Center for Health Statistics mortality data showed that fatal drug overdoses in urban, suburban, and rural communities have roughly tripled since 2000.

So far, however, just one app -- Pear Therapeutics' Reset -- has been certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat substance use disorders. Unlike uncertified apps that focus on disease management, Reset's goal is behavioral modification. Intended to be used in conjunction with outpatient therapy, the app offers 61 modules that include lessons, quizzes, and behavior-building exercises. At a rate of four exercises per week, the app aims to teach skills like avoiding situations where drugs are commonly used and resisting urges to use drugs.

3. Bring acupuncture into the 21st century.
Acupuncture remains outside America's medical mainstream, but it's gaining ground fast. About 6 percent of Americans use acupuncture, up from 4 percent just five years prior. Although acupuncture can relieve physical conditions like osteoarthritis and sciatica, it's particularly popular for mental health issues like mood swings, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found a variant known as electroacupuncture was as effective as Prozac in treating depression.

Of course, apps aren't able to stick electrified needles in people, nor should they advise non-trained professionals how to do it themselves. An acupuncture-massage hybrid known as acupressure, however, has been shown to reduce stress scores by up to 50 percent. Although a few acupressure apps exist, none are particularly well rated or widely downloaded. What's more, neither the iOS nor the Android leader offer video tutorials for those new to acupressure. 

4. Help them get professional help.
Sometimes, stress becomes too great to be managed alone. Unfortunately, too many Americans are shut out by high care costs: They need mental healthcare, but they can't afford to visit a doctor. About one in four Americans turned down medical care last year because of costs, with 32 percent of older Millennials doing so. Worse, nearly half of Americans who are already sick can't afford healthcare coverage.

Talkspace, which bills itself as "therapy for all," cuts down the costs of therapy to just $49 per week. The app connects users to licensed therapists, who respond once or twice per day to users, who can send as many messages per day as they wish. Talkspace user Michael Phelps turned to it when his mental health challenges turned out to be too great to tackle on his own. But because mental health professionals often specialize -- either according to age group, such as children or according to subfield, such as substance use -- plenty of room exists for more targeted solutions.

The world isn't getting any less stressful, but entrepreneurs are coming up with new tools to manage stress. Especially in the face of rising healthcare expenses, consumers are looking for low-cost ways to curb sources of stress ranging from social isolation to drug abuse. Although meditation is a popular answer, other age-old practices like acupuncture are gaining attention for their stress-busting benefits. And if all else fails, entrepreneurs are ensuring mental health professionals are just a tap away.

Published on: Oct 16, 2018
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