This uniquely challenging year in quarantine has given me time to reflect on my values, my past, the future, and what I can do to make a difference.
One way I hope to help others is by sharing my struggle with social anxiety, and how I evolved from that experience. I’d like to shine a light on this topic because it’s not discussed enough by those in leadership positions, which of course serves to further stigmatize anxiety in all its forms. Much of my life, both the positive and negative, has been shaped by my experience with social anxiety during my formative years. I want to help empower those who struggle with anxiety and let them know: You’re not alone, and your anxiety will not define you.
When I transitioned from middle school to high school, I experienced a notable shift in my mental and emotional state. I felt overcome with dread at the thought of having to re-establish my social connections. Would anyone want to talk to me? What do I have to offer? What if I try, but get rejected? Much of this negative self-talk was exacerbated by the depression that was beginning to take over me as I entered my teens. I was consumed with doubt about the inherent goodness of humanity. In turn, that growing cynicism colored how I felt about everyone, including myself. Instead of giving anyone a chance, I shut myself out and assumed the worst.
One of my most vivid, painful memories in high school was taking my lunch and eating alone in a back stairwell, because that was more bearable to me than trying to find a place at one of the many tables in the cafeteria, where I would have to make eye contact and chit chat with my fellow classmates. One day, as I was eating lunch alone in the stairwell, a security guard came across me and asked what I was doing. His simple question made me question whether the choices I was making to avoid short-term feelings of discomfort were really in my best interest. Looking back, I regret that I assumed my new classmates would not value my friendship. At that time in my life, I was suffering and needed help, but didn’t know where to find it.
Fortunately, I found a book called Freedom From Sadness, and that marked the beginning of a shift in my perspective. The book began with an anecdote about why cows don’t get sad; they don’t ruminate in the past, or worry about the future, but stay grounded in the present moment. Even though it may not sound life-changing, the simple observation relayed in the book changed my life because it led me to the practice of meditation. As I meditated more and more, I found relief from the darkness that had been casting a shadow across my mind. It wasn’t that my social anxiety was completely gone, or that I felt like a brand new person. Rather, I just didn’t feel as bad anymore, which was enough for me to continue on. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was better than doing nothing. At that point, I knew I’d experienced a glimpse of a journey into mindfulness that I’d be on for the rest of my life.
After college and my first job, I trekked through the Himalayas talking to monks who were masters of meditation. I told them, “I’m trying to build a meditation machine to help people meditate, who can’t come to the mountains.” They obliged my endless questions and even let me measure their brainwaves and heartbeats with a prototype wearable device I’d built in my garage. Luckily, the monks were exceedingly patient, kind, and compassionate, and let me gather their brainwave and heartbeat data without complaint.
The data from these readings was incredible. The monks, who were expert meditators, demonstrated clear differences in their physiology. Not only were their brain waves different, but their heart rate variability, a key biomarker for mental health, was significantly higher during meditation. Based on my experiences meditating, building my first piece of meditation machinery, and working in neuroscience labs, I knew it must be possible to create a tool that could help individuals create the same physiological patterns that these monks exhibited.
I wanted to combine the power of technology with meditation, by showing real time insights on the positive effects of mindful breathing on the body. This led me to develop a digital health product, which helps wearers become aware of their triggers for stress, and train their body to calm down by tracking their heart rate variability in real time and delivering personalized heart rate variability biofeedback exercises during moments of acute stress. By syncing breath with heart rate, heart rate variability biofeedback exercises can help maintain balance in the autonomic nervous system by activating its parasympathetic “rest and repair” mode – a sort of “quantified meditation”.
When I look back on my path to founding my company, I am grateful for the life experiences that brought me to this moment, including the painful ones. Without experiencing mental and emotional challenges in my formative years, I imagine my capacity of empathy would be less developed, and perhaps I wouldn’t feel as intrinsically motivated to help others struggling with mental health challenges. I feel lucky to have discovered meditation when I needed it most, and to be inspired to create a health technology product that has turned my pain into purpose.
Geri Lynn Utter, PsyD Perspective Piece: Relapse, Mental Health, and the State of the World As I sat down to write this article, I