Originally appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, written by Anna Orso.

When Clark Griswold tried to blanket his home in Christmas lights, an electrical glitch rendered the facade completely dark. But it was his gruff in-laws who added insult to injury. “Beautiful, Clark,” said one. The other called it a “silly waste of resources.”

This is a scene from the 1989 classic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. But you don’t need to summon Chevy Chase to feel some sort of way at the mere mention of your in-laws.

Finances, gift-giving and, yes, difficult family members all contribute to higher levels of stress during the holiday season. Now, thanks to a Philadelphia startup, there’s an app for that.

A Wharton grad and a Penn Ph.D. student last year founded NeuroFlow, a startup that’s developed software to interpret brain waves and heart rate to measure relaxation and help patients and clinicians visualize how external stressors trigger physical reactions.

The software shows that even the mention of one’s in-laws can set off in some people a physiological response – that gut-level feeling of uneasiness – and can then illustrate exactly how meditation and mindfulness techniques impact the body and brain. But the tool, now in beta and used by a handful of mental health professionals, has applications far beyond the holiday season. Its founders are planning a full launch in February, and believe their platform will ultimately help de-stigmatize mental illness by helping people see it, rather than just feel it.

A lofty goal for a company with eight full-time employees run by a couple of twentysomethings.

“We know it’s a stressful time of year, yet what we found is that the conversation around mental health, around anxiety, around stress is such that there’s this negative stigma,” said CEO and co-founder Christopher Molaro, 29, an Iraq war veteran and Wharton MBA who founded the company in large part to address post-traumatic stress disorder. “I think it’s because if you can’t understand something, measure something, see something, you just push it aside as something that doesn’t exist.”

NeuroFlow is a phone app and cloud-based program that, through bluetooth technology, interprets data to offer digestible information about how relaxed a person is. That data comes from a heart-rate monitor and an EEG (electroencephalogram), in this case a headset, which measures electrical activity in the brain.

The idea is that clinicians would be able to visualize exactly when a patient becomes more stressed, and can then watch in real-time as relaxation techniques like breath monitoring start to actually work. That visualization helps people see mental illness in the same way they can see a broken arm on an X-ray.
Sound complicated? I tried it out this week in a conference room at Benjamin’s Desk, the Center City coworking space where NeuroFlow is based.

Adam Pardes, the company’s 26-year-old co-founder and chief operating officer, helped me put on a headset (similar to the one in the photo above) that retails for about $250. The NeuroFlow program recognized I was wearing the headset, and the line that charted my score on the “relaxation index” was sky high.

Safe to say this reporter is not very relaxed. NeuroFlow confirmed it.

But with the help of a breathing guide that acts a bit like a metronome, I watched the line go down. After just about a minute, I’d gotten into the “relaxation zone,” and I was able to see it.
Other variances in anxiety and stress can be seen with NeuroFlow’s YouTube integration, a tool that allows therapists to show a patient a video – say it’s of a car driving over a bridge for a person who fears that – to see the exact point when a patient’s body goes into anxiety mode.

Using the technology, a patient would also be able to gauge progress with a therapist over time. The tool isn’t meant to replace a mental health professional, though. Think of NeuroFlow more as a thermometer for mental health.

“Your body physiologically changes when you’re more stressed and more relaxed,” Molaro said. “The fact that we can measure and better understand means that you don’t have to be ashamed of it and can go seek help, whether using our platform or not.”

Molaro said NeuroFlow closed its first major funding round in October, raising $1.25 million in venture capital. It’s also supported in part by Penn, where the company is conducting some research through the school’s Neuroscience Initiative.

Sixteen clinicians across the country are currently using NeuroFlow in beta, and the full software will be available for purchase online for about $100 per month.

Molaro and Pardes, who has a background in bioengineering, see a host of applications for clinicians and patients down the line, from testing stress levels in soldiers to tracking mental health in professional athletes to managing that Griswold-level holiday stress.

“Twenty veterans a day killing themselves is unacceptable. Fourteen students at Penn killing themselves is unacceptable,” Molaro said. “My mom crying on Christmas because she’s anxious and stressed out is unacceptable. People deserve better.”

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