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Tea Leaves

Can online wellness apps help solve our problems?

A surge in mental health and fitness apps is helping the world to cope

With the spread of COVID-19, online yoga classes are on the rise. Miuru Jayaweera, a professional yoga teacher, records a yoga session for online classes at her studio in Sri Lanka on April 19, 2020.   © Reuters

Every evening at 9 p.m., a soft "ping" sounds on my phone. It is a reminder to jot down a list of things I am grateful for that day. This is a chance for me to think back on the past 24 hours, and reflect on the fact that there were bright spots and happy moments, even on those days when time seemed to stretch on slowly and painfully, without any color or cheer to break the monotony of the lockdown.

The practice of offering gratitude, or "gratitude journaling," is not new. But to me it was one of the most important discoveries of the initial months of the pandemic, when I was shut at home in a new country, having recently moved from India to Malaysia. Just a few days ago, when I finished my short list of things to be thankful for, Presently -- the phone app I use -- popped up the message that I had completed 250 days of gratitude.

In the past, I had tried and tested several wellness programs, and have rarely (who am I kidding, I mean never) stuck to anything for more than six months without a break. So, what made this possible? The simplest explanation was that as soon as I heard the alarm, I could simply reach out for my phone -- which is always near at hand -- and type in my thoughts. I didn't need to move anywhere to find my journal and a pen, a process I have tried and given up rather quickly in the past.

Making the effort to offer up thanks for the small blessings and joys of life during this universally dark and dismal time has forced me to concede that my life itself is a blessing. And that, in turn, has boosted my mental health in a way that few other things have been able to achieve. Talking to friends living in different countries, I have also come to realize that I am not alone in feeling this way.

Indeed, in many ways, being forced to move my wellness regimen online because of the pandemic lockdown and the ensuing social isolation and mental stress has been a saving grace. Not just for me, but for people all around the world. From dealing with loneliness to suicide prevention, from habit trackers that support de-addiction efforts to guided meditations that help in relaxation, there seems to be an app for everything.

Dr. Dayal Mirchandani, a psychiatrist from Pune, India, says that some of these apps provide a temporary respite to people who cannot physically visit a doctor (or other wellness professional). "There are also apps that you can use to track your moods or record your emotions, which let you get in touch with your real feelings and identify activities or situations that make you feel better," he says.

Given the unprecedented increase in the use of such online mental wellness apps, the American Psychiatric Association has made an attempt to assess the most popular ones and offer guidelines to potential users. While meditation guides like Headspace have been around for a few years, others like the brand new QuarantineChat (which connects people quarantining alone) and the older Replika (which uses chatbots and artificial intelligence to allow people to talk and be heard without judgement) have seen an exponential surge in downloads all over the world. The APA has also stressed the need to use such apps with caution, and remember that they are not complete substitutes for expert help.

Apps such as Replika, which uses chatbots and artificial intelligence to allow people to talk and be heard without judgement, have had a major surge in downloads all over the world. (Screenshot from Replika).

The wellness apps trend is not restricted to mental and emotional health, with physical fitness also looming large at a time when even going out for a run or practicing group yoga seems laden with danger. Once again, it is YouTube and mobile apps to the rescue. In India, for instance, recent start-ups like Fittr and StepSetGo, which offer personalized fitness training programs and gamified versions of step counts respectively, are attracting thousands of new users every week. A study by Tokyo-based GMO Research in October showed that dependence on mobile wellness apps is rising fast in many Asian countries, furthered by the pandemic.

Personally, I have chosen to hedge my bets for my regular yoga practice, working with an experienced teacher online twice a week, and tuning into YouTube's favorite yoga stars for a change every now and then. Obviously, this is not the same as being in front of a teacher, or in a studio with others who share the same passion, but it works for me, for now. Indeed, according to Mirchandani, many of these apps help by keeping people occupied or distracted, giving them a semblance of control over their lives. In that way, they allow wellness routines -- whether physical or mental -- to continue without interruption, while we wait for the world to right itself.

Charukesi Ramadurai is a Malaysian-based writer

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