Do you know how stressed out you are right now? The options for tracking your stress are increasing. Thanks to the booming smart wearable market — estimated to be worth $27 billion — there are now multiple devices on offer that can help you monitor and combat stress.
It’s hardly surprising. Stress levels in the US are some of the highest in the world — an annual Gallup survey placed the US in the top 10 — and technology companies are smart to these stats. Naturally, COVID-19 has compounded this further with the American Psychological Association Stress in America 2020 Report finding that 78% of people identify the pandemic as significant stress in their lives
Similarly, as our perceptions of what ‘good health’ means and mental health garners equal gravitas as its physical counterpart, a 360 approach to monitoring wellbeing has come to the fore. “Defining health and wellness today is about so much more than being ‘exercise fit.’ Wearables have evolved to meet this pivotal moment, bringing new advanced sensors and tools to devices to help users better manage and understand their stress,” Samy Abdel-Ghaffar, Staff Research Scientist at Fitbit, explained.
Forget just tracking your steps or even your quality of sleep, a new breed of devices will tell you how much you’re stressing, alert you in high-stress moments and provide tactics to deal with it. While the concept of stress tracking isn’t entirely new — some devices have previously tracked stress via heart rate monitors — this new breed of wearable technology goes one step further.
The latest from Fitbit, the Fitbit Sense, is the world’s first smartwatch with an on-device electrodermal activity (EDA) sensor. It detects small electrical changes on your skin in real-time with the amount of moisture detected (that’s your sweat) indicative of how stressed you are. More sweat equals more stress. In the accompanying Fitbit app, you can go through a series of guided meditations and look at how many EDA responses you have while doing those meditations. “You should expect fewer EDA responses as you get calmer when you meditate and, hopefully, better manage your stress,” Fitbit’s Abdel-Ghaffar described.
The new Apple Watch Series 6 has a built-in blood oxygen monitor that measures using a light shone through the skin. It’s generally thought that a low oxygen percentage in your blood is a measure of a high-stress state. For example, just think about how an anxious moment can make you feel short of breath. Levels are tracked throughout the day and you can do your own spot checks too.
In a similar vein, both the Samsung’s Galaxy Watch3 and Garmin device Fenix 5 have invested in calming features alongside including a heart-monitor for tracking stress. Samsung has partnered with the meditation app Calm while Garmin prompts breathwork exercises when stress levels spike.
Feelmore Labs’s Cove device takes a slightly different tack. While currently, it doesn’t track stress levels (this is in the pipeline), it works to reduce stress throughout the day. This wearable device worn behind the ear harnesses the power of affective touch. It applies specific gentle vibrations behind and enables the natural biological pathway between the skin and brain to activate the part of the brain that regulates anxiety and promotes a sense of calm.“Cove was created to fill a void within the wearable tech category, delivering a product that actively improves your wellbeing, but doesn’t interfere with daily life,” Francois Kress, CEO of Feelmore Labs, commented. Scientific studies carried out by Feelmore have shown that consistent daily use of Cove in 20-minute increments results in reduced stress and enhanced sleep, ultimately improving resilience to stress over time.
The biggest plus side to these devices is increased awareness. You can only make stress-reducing changes once you’ve understood when and why you are stressed. General Practitioner, Dr. Najia Shaikh agrees on this: “It’s beneficial to track our stress levels in a quantitative way. It makes us more aware of our emotions and thus helps us to take appropriate steps such as breathing exercises, slowing down, meditation and rest in order to ease stress levels.”
Obsessing over anything, even health, is unhealthy.
However, like all new technology, the data isn’t entirely foolproof yet. When stress levels are tracked via electrodermal activity, devices can’t yet determine the difference between good and bad stress. “Your body can generate very similar reactions to happy stress like a job promotion versus watching a scary movie,” Dr. Shaikh explains. Reading blood oxygen levels yourself isn’t always entirely accurate. “It is more prone to error because of various factors such as movement, watch placement on the wrist and skin temperature. The readings should therefore be used only as a rough marker,” Dr. Shaikh says.
The obsessive nature of tracking our health should be taken into consideration too. “Obsessing over anything, even health, is unhealthy,” Dr. Shaikh notes. In recent years, rates of Orthorexia — a type of eating disorder that manifests as an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating — have been rising. Similarly, researchers have recently coined a new term Orthosomnia: an obsession with sleep quality and achieving a ‘perfect’ night’s sleep driven by the access we have to sleep data. Dr. Shaikh believes these devices do help the majority of people but cautions those with obsessive personalities to think carefully about how they might use them. “It may be beneficial to limit the amount of times you check your levels, steps or readings as having access to data 24/7 can sometimes do more harm than good,” she says.
Of course, having significant time away from technology is one of the best ways to ease stress levels. Finding the sweet spot between tracking your stress and actively taking time away from the technology is the type of balance we should all aim to achieve.
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