For some people, right now is a stressful time to be alive. And for some, it's always a stressful time to be alive. Zak Williams, for one, has had his fair share of mental-health struggles long before 2020 began. He's suffered from anxiety for as long as he can remember, and when his father, actor Robin Williams, died of suicide in 2014, that anxiety was "kicked into overdrive," as he puts it.
"I was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and I found myself feeling completely dis-regulated and ultimately needing something to change," he tells me over Zoom. He goes on to explain how he tried self-medicating with alcohol, which turned into substance abuse. He found cannabis exacerbated his anxiety, and prescription medication made him feel like a "zombie."
"I had to do something that enabled me to feel like myself but without the enormous amount of stress, anxiety and trauma that was weighing me down and making life unmanageable," he says.
Williams was so open about these personal struggles with me because he's turned them — and his search for solutions to them — into a business: PYM, which stands for Prepare Your Mind (and is pronounced like in "Pimm's Cup"), officially launched Thursday. Williams's new wife Olivia June — they had a beautiful, outdoor Los Angeles wedding on Oct. 10 — is his co-founder.
The debut product is called Mood Chews. They're a fruit snack-like chew formulated with amino acids and adaptogens to help manage stress and anxiety. Amazingly, they do not contain CBD — and, in my experience at least, they actually work. And given *gestures broadly* they couldn't have come at a better time.
Williams comes to PYM with more than just a background in anxiety and tragedy. He has an MBA from Columbia and previous positions include: COO of the recommendation platform Crossing Minds, the Director of Business Development for Condé Nast and the marketing lead for gaming and media platform N3TWORK. More recently, he's also been working with mental health organizations and established himself as a mental health advocate. He found a commitment to service to be "very healing" with regard to trauma.
But it wasn't enough. "That didn't provide the type of stress and anxiety support that I needed on a day-to-day level that got me through challenging times," he says.
In searching for a natural solution, he found that certain amino acid and adaptogen formulations ultimately did the trick. And at some point, that business and marketing experience kicked in. He noticed that amino acid formulations weren't well-known as a mental-health solution. "I was like, 'We need to popularize this opportunity to support wellbeing and mental health,' so I started a company with my wife."
Coming up with the right formulations took time and research. They worked with a scientific advisory board, including a neuroscientist, a research psychiatrist, an epidemiologist and a neuroendocrinologist. He also worked with Lena Kwak, a culinary researcher at Thomas Keller's famed restaurant French Laundry. "We spent 2019 formulating a safe, effective and delicious chewable and when we came upon the formulation that was both safe and effective but also tasted great, we decided to take it to market," he explains. The key active ingredients they landed on are GABA, a naturally occurring neurotransmitter in the brain that inhibits anxiety; Rhodiola, believed to relieve depression and stress; and L-Theanine, known to reduce stress but improve cognition. (Of course, these claims are not confirmed by the FDA.)
Williams used his friends and family as "a group of stressed out and anxious Guinea pigs" to test things out, and even went back to the drawing board a couple of times to make sure the chews had the desired at effect. At one point, they contained caffeine, but Williams and his team found that it had a sort of canceling-out effect with the GABA. For this reason, Williams doesn't take it in the morning with his coffee, instead waiting a few hours for his first dose. He averages four-to-five chews throughout the day, using them as a preventative measure against anxiety. He also suggests taking them 15-20 minutes before a potentially stressful situation. But, ultimately, it's up to you.
"Some people like to take it before they go to bed, it helps them sleep deeper. Others like taking it in the afternoon and it helps them get through the afternoon in a clear, focused and supported way. We have other customers who like taking it in the morning and they don't drink coffee or they like taking it with their coffee, but it reduces the effect."
Once the formula was right, then came the brand building.
"Through that journey, the thing that I found to be pretty remarkable is that there's not brand that stands for mental health in the consumer goods category, like say Red Bull stands for energy, or Coca-Cola stands for refreshment," Williams tells me. "There's an opportunity to create a brand that can in itself break down the stigma associated with mental health."
In fact, over the past couple of years, mental health has begun popping up more and more in the consumer goods arena, as a sort of extension of the exploding wellness industry. There's Madhappy, a LVMH-backed clothing brand with a mission to destigmatize and educate consumers around mental health issues. Self Care Is for Everyone has a similar mission and sells relevant merch to its 900k+ Instagram followers. There's We're Not Really Strangers, which began as mental health-focused Instagram platform and now sells a card game to foster connection. There are also brands like Peak & Valley, Four Sigmatic, Moon Juice and The Nue Co., which sell nootropic, adaptogenic and aromatherapeutic blends to promote both physical and mental wellness. Meanwhile, influencers, including those who established themselves in fashion/beauty/lifestyle arenas, have begun speaking openly about mental-health struggles more than ever (and been rewarded for it, at that). And that's all to say nothing of the overwhelming ubiquity of CBD.
Madhappy Is Building a Brand Around Hoodies and Mental Health
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It is perhaps worth noting that, with the exception of Madhappy, most of these brands seem to target (and happen to be founded by) women more than men. "Things are getting incrementally better over time," Williams says of people's openness to talk about mental health. "I would say men are more open [than in the past], but not to the level I've seen that women are open to talking about mental health... I think in the case of certain communities, there's the idea of just shaking it off. In a worst case, drinking it off, or just not talking about things, and that's seen as being a characteristic of 'manliness.'"
Also importantly, Williams sees his Mood Chews as but one piece of the mental health-supporting puzzle that he wants to help people solve holistically. He sees them fitting into a "ritual" that may also include fitness, eating well, meditation and therapy, when accessible.
PYM, of course, has an Instagram account with plenty of mood-enhancing content. Williams wants to foster education around mental health and build a community around the brand, and possibly launch a "community oriented software to enable people to feel more supported," as well as events and experiences once those can be done safely. He also hopes to work with mental-health nonprofits to give back. Product-wise, there's an "extra-strength" version of Mood Chews in the works, as well as new flavors; next is berry.
Williams says events like the pandemic and forthcoming election created a more "pressing need" for products like his, citing a recent statistic that "40% of American adults are dealing with some sort of mental health consideration," a jump from 25% a year ago. "There's never been more of a need to have mental health support products, especially those that are safe, effective, and non addictive," he says. For now, Mood Chews are available to order online for a pretty reasonable $30 for a pack of three tins, which each contain 20 chews.
For those of us looking for even more alternatives to gallons of wine as this country continues to fall apart, Williams has a few healthier tips:
"Time to commit to service. You can do that digitally by supporting organizations, by coaching, by connecting with people who might otherwise be isolated.
That segues into: don't isolate yourself. Find ways to connect with people at every opportunity. This can be a very isolating time we're in. Try to find rituals that support you and turn them into habits and try to be healthy and productive in those habits — meaning things that feel sustaining and enriching and part of your story of growth, not numbing or seeking to forget."