The Science of Personal Zen

The Science of Personal Zen


In 2011, I created the stress- and anxiety-reduction app Personal Zen. I’ve written a good bit about the origin of Personal Zen, and my approach to digital therapeutics. But I write much less about how Personal Zen actually works. So here goes…

Personal Zen works by shifting our cognitive biases – invisible habits of thinking and paying attention. When we get anxious or stressed, we pay too much attention to the negatives and have less ability to see the positives in life.

The threat bias hijacks our fear brain and acts as an unconscious information filter, an imbalance in what we pay attention to that makes us actually prioritize threat and negativity at the expense of the positive. When the threat bias becomes a rigid habit of looking at the world, it puts our fight/flight response on a hair trigger, and sky-rockets our feelings of stress and anxiety.

For example, imagine you’re giving a public speech, and there is a smart audience in front of you, bright lights beaming down. If I have an amped-up threat bias, I would very quickly and intensely notice that there is this one person in the audience who is frowning, shaking his or her head, maybe falling asleep. I will fail to notice all the interested and smiling faces in the audience, and get stuck on this person. The natural result – I feel more anxious and stressed, I am on the look-out for further negative information, and I ignore positive evidence that I’m doing a good job. In this way, the threat bias drives the vicious cycle of stress and anxiety, takes up mental bandwidth, and puts us at a disadvantage when there is no real danger to face – when the monsters in the closet are only in our mind.

Yet, there is an empowering message hidden in the idea of cognitive biases. Biases are essentially habits. When we have a bad habit, we are not broken inside, we just need to learn a new habit.

Personal Zen helps us form new mental habits. It embeds techniques that derail the threat bias, which in turn creates the space to learn new habits that help heal the anxious brain. Here’s how it works.

We see both an angry and pleasant face (our cartoon sprites) quickly pop up on the screen. The sprites then disappear, but only the pleasant sprite leaves a trail. Our task is to trace that winding trail. Because the angry and pleasant sprite appear at exactly the same time, our brain is forced to decide which to attend to first. By ALWAYS following the trail of the pleasant sprite, our brains learn to automatically focus first on the positive and disengage from the negative. We start building a new habit of attention: Follow the joy. It’s deceptively simple, but clinical trials show that using Personal Zen changes how our brains respond to threat and reduces stress and anxiety after as little as one session.

When I created Personal Zen, my fundamental dream was to create a mental wellness tool, or even an intervention for serious mental health problems, that is delightful and fun while also being highly effective. It has to be truly “snackable” so it can fit into our lives like a pocket ritual, a chill pill without the pharmacy, where in just a handful of minutes, we are empowered to create a moment of peace in our hectic lives and to find our own Personal Zen.