Wellbeing wearables need to take the stress out of stress tracking

The challenges of biofeedback apps & wearable tech - and how to fix them
Taking the stress out of stress tracking

From the breath-tracking Spire to the heart-rate sensing WellBe, wearables designed to track and manage our stress levels using biofeedback are becoming increasingly popular.

And it's not just small startups and new names that are working to help us better understand how our minds work. Big tech brands, like Apple, Fitbit and Garmin with its recently-launched Vivosmart 3, are baking stress-tracking sensors and algorithms into their most popular products to paint a more holistic picture of how both our minds and bodies are performing day-to-day.

Read this: Best fitness trackers to buy now

We've written extensively about stress-tracking tech, from the advantages of visualising stress and identifying triggers, through to flagging up the challenges of defining stress and the technical difficulties in developing sensors that accurately measure it.

Alongside these discussions, I've also tested a number of the most popular stress-tracking devices to see how well they really perform when they're strapped to someone who often experiences stress and mild anxiety.

Although there were plenty of positives, on many occasions I felt that being made aware of my stress levels in real-time created more, unexpected stress - the exact opposite of what these devices were designed to do.

With this in mind, I want to take a closer look at the challenges of helping stressed-out people to better manage their stress with wearables. I also want to consider how the ever-growing number of companies venturing into the stress-tracking space can be confident that they're truly helping people and not adding more hassle to their day.

The value in learning more about yourself

How wearable tech could take the stress out of stress tracking

I spoke to Dr. Kyriaki G. Giota, a psychologist at the University of Thessaly, Greece, who published the paper 'Mental Health Apps: Innovations, Risks and Ethical Considerations' and has been working with a team to better understand the implications of using tech — both hardware and apps — to improve our mental well-being.

I asked Dr Giota what, in her experience, are the positives of stress-tracking tech. "Tracking can be used as an opportunity to learn more about yourself," Dr. Giota said. "You can achieve better health by monitoring the patterns (mood, thoughts, behaviours, experiences) in your life, being proactive and identifying negative influences (or "triggers") that you need to avoid, as well as having early warning signs/symptoms that your health is deteriorating," she explained.

During my own test of stress wearables, one of the clear benefits of tracking my own stress levels was having the ability to visualise them. I could see stress levels rise and fall and was also able to pinpoint the likely causes of these fluctuations.

And that's the basic idea of biofeedback: that the more physiological information you have about yourself, the more you can work with, understand, and change it.

Stress can be stressful

How wearable tech could take the stress out of stress tracking

While it felt empowering to see my stress levels at certain times, at others it actually felt completely overwhelming, causing me to get stressed about my stress. The problem for me was that it sometimes felt like I had very little control over my stress. Seeing that you've not reached your steps goal with a wearable is one thing, you can easily address it by going for a walk, but with stress it's often not so easy and you can become fixated on that lack of control.

I asked Dr. Giota about the different factors that could influence how a person might better cope with stress tracking to help me to understand why I had struggled with it.

"Responses vary because they are connected to an individual's temperament, their inherent personality characteristics, his/her personal appraisal of the situation, if it's a known, immediate or dangerous situation, if he/she has control, has time to prepare and can predict the outcome," Dr. Giota explained.

Every person is unique in how they respond to the same situation

What Dr. Giota and numerous studies about stress responses make clear is that how much stress we experience in response to stress differs from person to person depending on our personalities - and even our moods at any given time. I certainly felt that some days it was good to have so much additional awareness whilst on others it caused me a surprising amount of anxiety.

The problem here might be that, as individuals, when we are actively looking for ways to deal with our stress, we might not be in the best state to objectively judge that a product isn't completely right for us and that some days it might be a help and others it simply won't.

I also spoke with Dr. Santosh Kumar, a computer science professor at the University of Memphis who has written extensively about wearable tech and using sensors to measure stress, who had more to say on this point.

"Every person is unique in how they respond to the same situation and how they cope up with challenges," he explained. "Differences in self-regulatory capacity [a person's ability to exert control over their thoughts, feelings, and actions] may have a role in the difference in responding to stress challenges."

In response to this, Dr. Kumar also highlighted the importance of creating more tailored experiences instead of applying a broad brush approach: "Mobile technology has the potential to adapt their recommendations to each user by observing response to recommendations."

He added: "I would expect the stress tracking technology to get better over time as companies personalise their offering to each user to make it helpful to each user with greater usage history."

Viewing wearables as 'tools' not 'cures'

How wearable tech could take the stress out of stress tracking

With this in mind, I wanted to understand more about what can be done to ensure that people understand the real advantages of stress tracking tech as well as its current, unavoidable limitations. The experts I spoke to felt that getting the marketing messages right would be a good place to start.

"It is important that tech companies and apps marketing mental health/mood/stress tracking features inform potential users that their product is not intended to replace professional mental health treatment," said Dr. Giota.

Niels Eék, psychologist and co-founder of Remente, a mood-tracking app, told me that the key is to see this kind of tech as a tool - not a solution or treatment. He explained: "The key is in a proper description. It needs to be made clear that you can't receive the equivalent of medical advice through any kind of mood/stress tracking app or device."

"Apps can be good, highly supportive and informative tools, which you can use when you speak to a doctor about particular examples, or episodes, but it won't necessarily 'cure' you," Eék told me. This points to the responsibility of tech companies to make it really clear what their products, or features within products, are aiming to do.

One of the biggest hurdles here is how we talk about mental health. For example, there's no universal definition of stress. For some people it's occasional, whilst for others it accompanies depression or mild anxiety.

So even if tech companies are able to take more responsibility for this through their product messaging, there's still no saying that it's going to have the desired effect for everyone.

Tech and mental health

Dr. Giota told me that in the future she feels that the sector as a whole needs to take responsibility for this kind of tech, not just the companies creating it.

She explained: "Psychologists, counsellors and therapists should contribute to the constantly growing body of evidence on the impact of technology on mental health by reporting their experiences, publishing their findings, and improving their current practices."

These challenges shouldn't scare tech brands. They highlight the values of rigorous testing, the need for clearer marketing and, most importantly, the opportunity to benefit from the mental health community's insight at every step of the way. This will help people like me, who are actively looking for better ways to manage their stresses with technology, to connect with the best possible products — and won't that be a relief!



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