Is Digital Health the Solution to the Stress Epidemic — Or Part of the Problem?

This post by Andrew Shatte, PhD, Chief Science Officer of meQuilibrium, first appeared on

For three years now I’ve been immersed in the digital health revolution, as the Chief Science Officer for a company that employs new technologies to help people fight old stress. So, when it comes to digital health I’m an advocate and a fan. But as the Digital Health summit in Las Vegas approaches and the digital gurus and groupies prepare to assemble en masse near the strip, I find myself wondering if, when it comes to stress, digital approaches are part of the cure, or part of the disease.

We are experiencing stress in epidemic proportions. In fact, stress is the new fat. Like obesity, it’s hitting more and more people and at younger and younger ages. And like obesity it’s insidious — stress is so much a part of our lives that we don’t notice it anymore. Like obesity, it’s the new norm.

Stress is something that a consumer can measure and improve. Fertile ground for the digital health industry, right? We can measure our heart rate, track our emotions, and record our stress-busting workouts and healthful eating. But isn’t this constant connectedness, this 24/7 bombardment of information, exactly what got us into this stress mess?

You see, we developed our physical stress system, our fight-or-flight response, between 400,000 and 4 million years ago. It’s designed to get our bodies pumped up with adrenaline and ready to flee the lion that leapt at us out of the savannah grass once every week or so. It’s supposed to work in an acute emergency for a few seconds or so. But that’s not the nature of our modern stressors. Today we’re plagued by imminent deadlines, juggling work projects, doing more with less, rumors of downsizing, work-home imbalance, aging parents, and financial difficulties — in short, perpetual, chronic problems. Shunting our modern adversities into our ancient stress system is a square peg in a round hole and it’s killing us. And the omnipresence of our digital devices is making it worse.

So, is digital health an oxymoron? Is sending in digital technologies to beat stress like fighting for peace? I don’t think so. I think digital health solutions are exactly what we need to defeat this epidemic, and here’s why. To beat stress, we need to change our lives. And that means changing our behaviors. After 25 years in the behavior-change business, I know it can only happen if three conditions are met. First, the solution has to be customized to the exact needs of the consumer. Live training can’t do that. Second, to substitute good lifestyle behaviors for bad, we need to be prompted every day. Therapists and medical professionals can’t do that. And for a stressed consumer, the solution needs to be available when they have time — at 3 a.m., if need be. Life coaches, therapists, and medical professionals won’t do that.

Digital health is the path to leading a less stressed life. And I cannot wait to see what amazing innovations await us at the Digital Health summit next week.

Andrew Shatté, Ph.D. is the Chief Science Officer at meQuilibrium – a Boston-based organization that offers an online, stress management tool. He has been researching resilience and stress for over two decades and has developed effective programs for children, college students, and corporations. He is a co-creator of the meQuilibrium program.

Dr. Shatté is the founder and President of Phoenix Life Academy, a company that specializes in measuring and training in resilience. He is a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Executive Education, a former professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and currently serves as a research professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona. Dr. Shatté has published prolifically in peer-reviewed journals and is the author of The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles.