I had my first panic attack in college a few months before graduation. Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers had his in front of millions of viewers during a televised game against Atlanta. The stakes were slightly different, but the symptoms were remarkably similar. “It was like my body was trying to say to me, ‘You’re about to die,’ ” Love wrote of the experience, adding: “I ended up on the floor in the training room, lying on my back, trying to get enough air to breathe.” As for me, I was on the floor of a beer-stained campus restroom convinced I was having a heart attack.
We’d both waited for a crisis to finally seek treatment, which is the second (and probably last) thing I have in common with the NBA all-star. Though it’s good to know that waiting way too long to ask for help is a dude thing, according to Emily Anhalt, Psy.D., who advocates for a more proactive approach to mental health. “It’s like waiting until you’re diagnosed with early signs of heart disease to do cardio,” she says.
Anhalt is a cofounder and the chief clinical officer of Coa, a Bay Area start-up that bills itself as the first “gym for mental health,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Coa offers small group classes in emotional fitness starting around $25 each. Although the pandemic forced the company to hit pause on its brick-and-mortar plans and move its classes online, one can see the appeal in a SoulCycle for mental health. Group classes are more affordable than traditional one-on-one therapy, and the camaraderie of a passionate cheering section keeps you coming back. This isn’t your average community support group—it’s support with licensed therapists and smart branding. If it seems like a gimmick, it may be, but Silicon Valley is all in; Coa raised $3 million in an initial seed round last fall and counts Kevin Love and Casper Sleep founder Neil Parikh among its backers. “We spend so much time talking and working on our physical health,” Love told me when I asked him about his investment. “If mental health was given the same amount of attention, we’d make massive strides to help those who need it.”
The mental wellness treatment boom
The wellness space has increasingly attracted the attention—and cash—of VCs and professional athletes. Who better to break down long-held stigmas about mental health than high-achieving gladiators in touch with their feelings? U. S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe and Minnesota Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks are both investors in a start-up called Real that’s raised $16 million; it lets users stream eight-week courses on topics like anxiety and communication and live events for as low as $28 per month. Michael Phelps, who has been vocal about his battle with depression and substance abuse, is a spokesperson for the talk-therapy company Talkspace.
With access to care strained and therapists reporting growing waiting lists, these apps are filling a very real need. But this isn’t about burdening some bot with your problems. What Coa offers is online group therapy (in a slick package) coming from an action-oriented approach. “The world wants a quick and easy fix for a problem that is not quick or easy,” said Anhalt. “Who we are as people is nuanced, it’s layered. And the only solution that’s going to work is one that honors that complexity.” Do you even lift, bro?
Coa’s curriculum is rooted in Anhalt’s Seven Traits of Emotional Fitness, which she developed from her own research on emotionally fit individuals. (These people practice self-awareness, empathy, mindfulness, curiosity, play, resilience, and communication; Coa’s classes help you firm up those areas in your own life.) Coa offers targeted eight-week online classes like Emotional Fitness for Mental Wellness, Emotionally Fit Leadership, and Emotionally Fit Leadership for BIPOC Leaders for $240. (It also provides matchmaking services with one-on-one therapists in California and New York, with plans to expand nationwide.)
In the classes, clients (patients?) are instructed to leave their cameras on and come ready to share. The classes are less about, say, rehashing childhood trauma and more focused on questions that challenge patterns and offer actionable steps to improve confidence, reduce stress, and strengthen relationships. Said the company’s CEO, Alexa Meyer: The name Coa comes from coalesce, “growing together. That’s what we’re helping people do.”
Put me in, Coach
I took the 90-minute virtual Introduction to Emotional Fitness class, which promised an appetizer—“a little taste,” our facilitator said—of Coa’s ethos. About 40 minutes in, I wondered if I might leave with a time-share in Aruba. Or at least a tote bag. But the tone was informative and authoritative while not shying away from Internet slang. I’m a professional skeptic, but I’m also a human who suffers from—say it with me—crippling self-doubt. And it was both scary and empowering to tell 20 strangers on Zoom something I like about myself. I can’t believe I’m putting this in print, but I might actually take Coa’s advice and start a “self-esteem file,” a place to put every piece of positive feedback you’ve ever received, to skim on days when you feel like garbage.
Actually, that would be the third thing I have in common with Kevin Love, who told me that he keeps a journal. “For me, self-awareness is key,” Love said. “I write things down and have a routine that involves different journals for specific topics I want to dive into or explore that day. Journaling is a form of therapy for me. I also constantly practice mindfulness by listing gratitudes and have made it part of my everyday life. Sometimes putting something down on paper can help simplify and help you execute.”
But seriously, a journal? “I’m in a hypermasculine sport and never wanted to be looked at as weak or lose trust from my teammates and coaches,” Love said. “Thankfully, exposing my truth was incredibly freeing and helped me settle in both on and off the court. Share your story. Nothing haunts us like the things we don’t say.”
Chris Jones, 39, was about to launch his own development-and-production company in Los Angeles when the pandemic hit. The son of a therapist, he already had a regular meditation practice and considered himself on firm ground. Still, he enrolled in Coa’s eight-week class on emotionally fit leadership—treating Coa’s proactive approach as another tool in his arsenal. “It’s more resources to keep me grounded, keep me present, keep me doing the things that I was already doing to be healthy,” he said.
Through the classwork, Jones recognized patterns in himself, like excuses he’d make for getting defensive. He’d had trouble in the past “being comfortable with discomfort,” he said, especially when forced to give negative feedback to people who worked for him. Coa’s facilitator raised questions like: As discomfort arises in conversations, what do you do about it? What are you doing to protect yourself? What are the story lines that might be limitations? “Then we’d go into breakout sessions and talk about it,” Jones said, likening this work to “getting reps in” at the gym.
“This type of intervention may be a good bridge to a more evidence-based treatment program, like meeting with a psychiatrist, or a good place to get support,” says psychiatrist Gregory Scott Brown, M.D., an MH advisor. He calls the idea behind Coa “a step in the right direction,” but cautions that “severe mental illnesses—major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia—would need a higher level of care with an M.D.”
With the pandemic maybe finally under control, Coa aims to open physical locations in 2022—in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to start. (New classes are also currently in the works, including courses on romantic relationships and parenting.) But the shift online has made Coa’s classes more accessible and—in a way—helped potential clients overcome their fear of, ya know, walking into a gym. Even a mental gym. While Coa intends to scale, as all wannabe unicorns must, when it comes to growth, management is being (you guessed it) intentional.
“We want to be big,” says Anhalt. “But we’re not going to scale faster than we can do with integrity. Our investors know that in the long run, what’s best for the bottom line is something that actually works.”
This story originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Men’s Health.
Source: Read Full Article