Stress-free or stressful: Will tracking our stress levels really make us more calm?

The science behind the latest stress busting wearable tech devices
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Wearable tech built to count steps, track workouts and hit more reps has well and truly hit the mainstream but, over the past twelve months, there's been a huge increase in devices aimed at keeping our minds in check, just as much as our bodies.

We took a look at some of the top wearables built to beat stress recently but, what we really want to know, is whether tech designed to track stress actually helps us or hinders us when it comes to better understanding the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety.

And, most importantly, will tracking, identifying and monitoring these physiological factors make long-lasting effects to our emotional wellbeing and mental health?

What do they track?

Many of the devices built for stress monitoring at the moment use one of two physiological markers, tracking either Electro Dermal Activity (EDA) – that's products like Pip and Embrace – or Heart Rate Variability (HRV); we're talking wearables like NeuroSky, Bellabeat, Prana and WellBe. Whereas in the past more traditional medical devices would focus solely on blood pressure or heart rate on their own.

HRV is about the variation between your heartbeat intervals. Generally, your HRV will decrease when you're mentally stressed. Studies online, such as The Influence of Mental Stress on Heart Rate and Heart Rate Variability, suggest that using HRV markers is one of the best ways to track stress.

EDA measures the electrical characteristics of your skin based on the state of your sweat glands. As sweating is controlled by your sympathetic nervous system, skin conductance and electrical characteristics can be an indication of psychological and physiological arousal. Work published about the effectiveness of EDA measurements are less bold than those about HRV, but research has still pointed to the marker as a valid way to track stress among groups of people using a wearable.

So it's clear that two of the biofeedback sensors employed by many new wearables, EDA and HRV, can present us with a basic understanding of stress and allow us to track our emotional well-being and become more mindful of what's going on day-to-day.

We need more context

But of course, there are a lot of different factors at play here. And the first is context.

If your wearable is telling you you're stressed, it doesn't give you much wiggle room to reframe your aroused state and turn your fear into a more useful emotion

Studies into both EDA and HRV tracking flag up that both excitement and positive anticipation can often trigger the same responses as stress - one of the inherent problems with talking about "stress" as such a catch-all term.

So when the sympathetic nervous system has put our bodies into the "fight or flight" response, a more basic wearable might tell us we're stressed.

For instance, if your wearable is telling you you're stressed, it doesn't give you much wiggle room to reframe your aroused state and turn your fear into a more useful emotion - a practice called restructuring that's often used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

This would become confusing over time without the ability to add context and specific details to each and every reading; especially considering some people assume any kind of heightened state is always negative.

Sleek and stylish vs. effective

As wearable tech companies attempt to make their products more sleek, attractive and wearable, there's a balancing act between aesthetics and ensuring the hardware and its sensors are effective as possible.

Of course this is a concern when it comes to all kinds of wearable tech products, but especially those that monitor stress levels.

Stress-free or stressful: Will tracking our stress levels really make us more calm?

In Using Heart Rate Monitors to Detect Mental Stress, Choi and Gutierrez-Osuna explain that EDA is one of the "robust physiological indices of stress" but to work, devices need to be still, stable and attached to very specific parts of the body.

"Electrodes must be placed in the fingers or the palm of the hand, which severely limits dexterity; electrodes can be placed in the feet, but the resulting measurements are then dependent on posture," the report explains.

So there are issues around whether the sensors needed to track EDA and HRV are really effective in such consumer-friendly devices.

Getting the tools and strategies right

Next up, wearable tech brands built for stress need to ensure tools and strategies for understanding and dealing with the stress are at the core of everything they do. Devices like Pip and NeuroSky allow you to play games, assess what's going on and learn what works to calm you down.

In the same way wearables built for fitness can't just track data and expect us all to get fitter, presenting information about stress and expecting us all to calm down won't work either.

So although sensors and hardware need to be spot on, the well-informed strategies, breathing techniques and labeling tactics that come into play after tracking are just as important here.

People need to want to wear them

Stress-free or stressful: Will tracking our stress levels really make us more calm?

Arguably, the most important factor at play when it comes to most kinds of wearable tech, is how the user feels about wearing something designed to help them monitor their lifestyle 24/7 - especially their stress levels.

With these kinds of devices you're armed with awareness. But to one person this awareness could be viewed as useful and empowering and to another it could be viewed as overwhelming and even destructive.

And there's really no surefire way of guaranteeing how anyone will react. In a report in The Financial Times, Mike Weston, the chief executive of data science consultancy Profusion, discussed a workplace experiment designed to provide people with information about how they felt throughout the day using a wearable. He explained the experiment was extremely dividing, with some finding it "enlightening and useful" and others "disturbing" and "the most stressed".

Should we outsource our emotions to a wearable?

Another thing to consider for those who feel empowered is what the implications are for relying on a piece of wearable tech to manage your mood.

As a tool to provide you with more control and awareness, it could be useful, powerful and even life-changing. But people could also heavily rely on its metrics and suggestions, which would effectively outsource awareness to a gadget rather than themselves. This could be a viable short-term solution, but is really quite problematic as a long-term fix.

Stress-free or stressful: Will tracking our stress levels really make us more calm?

Using tech to monitor stress levels outside of a medical environment is still new. Therefore, there's no way of telling whether these kinds of unregulated devices built to alleviate stress will really have a positive impact in the long run.

We're fascinated to see how the hardware itself advances over the next twelve months and whether the tools and strategies that are served up to users are reported to be useful and empowering. If they are, there's huge potential here for people to take their emotional wellbeing into their own hands more than ever before.

Do you use wearable tech to deal with stress levels? Let us know over on the Wareable Forum.

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Becca Caddy


Becca has been writing about technology for nearly ten years. In that time she’s covered topics from robotics and virtual reality to simulated universe theory and brain-computer interfaces for a wide range of titles, including TechRadar, New Scientist, Wired UK, OneZero by Medium, Stuff, T3, Metro and many more.

She’s passionate about helping people wade through tech jargon to find useful products they’ll actually use – with a focus on health and wellbeing.

Becca is also interested in how scientific developments and technological advances will impact us all in the near future. Many of her features ask big questions about what’s in store for wearable technology, especially the potential of virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

She spends a lot of time interviewing researchers and academics to explore the ethical implications of a world increasingly filled with tech. She’s a big fan of science-fiction, has just traded in her boxing gloves for weight-lifting gloves and spends way too much time in virtual reality – current favourites include painting in TiltBrush and whizzing through space in No Man’s Sky.

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