​The Stress Test: Can a wearable really make you calmer?

Becca Caddy puts her emotional wellbeing into the hands of four wearables
Can a wearable make you calmer?

The accelerometer inside your fitness tracker does a pretty good job tracking how many steps you take. You can determine your exact location with GPS and you can get a fairly accurate indication of your heart rate at any given time with a heart rate monitor too. But what about your stress levels, how mindful you are, your breathing and your emotional wellbeing?

Moves from Fitbit and Apple into the wellbeing and relaxation space suggest that a focus on our inner world will be a trend in wearable tech for 2017 and beyond. And it's hardly surprising. Research suggests our collective stress levels are on the rise, as are instances of anxiety.

Due to the subjective nature of emotional states and the difficulty in tracking them, many have questioned the legitimacy of claims that a wearable can really have much of an impact on our mental wellbeing, as well as the accuracy of the data they collect. So, we wanted to put a few of them to the test in a real life setting, away from bold claims about relaxing us, calming images and promises of long-lasting wellbeing and into the hands of an often stressed, anxiety-ridden guinea pig. (That's me!)

How to measure emotional wellbeing

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the testing, let's look at how these brands are attempting to track our emotional well-being. Two of the main ways we can begin to track emotional wellbeing are sentiment analysis software, that's what we're saying in the moment, or biometric data. The biometric data that's currently easiest to gather and interpret is about our breathing and our heart rate (or heart rate variability to be more accurate).

According to experts including Psychology Today, HRV can be a good physiological marker of how we experience and regulate our emotions. That's because when we're confronted with dangers, our heart rate spikes, brought on by the sympathetic part of our nervous system. When we're not in this fight-or-flight state, our bodies are recovering and we can eat, grow, heal and be calm. This is the parasympathetic part. When sympathetic activity increases, heart rate goes up. When it decreases, it goes down. Vice versa, when parasympathetic activity goes down, heart rate goes up and when it increases, it does down. Got that? So what tracking HRV can do is measure when heart rate is being mediated by the sympathetic or parasympathetic parts. Because sudden changes in heart rate and greater HRV point to more parasympathetic influences on the heart, it's more flexible at responding to emotions.

Breathing is tracked differently, using sensors that can measure movement and detect how your torso expands and contracts. But, just like HRV, it's detecting changes that signal an activation of the sympathetic branch of your nervous system, which include breathing more erratically and rapidly. Neema Moraveji, PhD and co-founder of Spire, told us: "Breathing is the only physiological metric humans can directly control. It both reflects our state of mind and we have conscious, immediate control over it to influence our state of mind."

Of course it's not just a case of collecting data and labelling heart rate or breathing as "fast" or "slow". Brands have developed algorithms that are attempting to more accurately pinpoint moments of calm and moments of stress. But there are problems here. Particularly when there's often little physiological difference between excitement and stress or that everyone reacts so differently.

The experiment

There are all kinds of products on the market that are either built to track calm and relaxation or are angling some of their efforts in that direction. We wanted to use a number of products separately, then at the same time, for a whole week to see how their methods and results compare. To do this well, we chose the Bellabeat Leaf Urban, the WellBe, Spire and Fitbit Charge 2. They all use very different methods, but are aimed at calming, understanding and getting you back on track.

To give you a quick summary, the Bellabeat Leaf Urban uses data about other areas of your life to predict your stress levels and then serves up meditation programmes allowing you to track your dedication to calm over time. The Fitbit Charge 2 has a Relax feature bolted-on that tracks your HRV -- but no in-app results. The WellBe tracks your HRV to try and identify stressors throughout the day. Whereas the Spire is all about tracking your breathing, helping you calm your breath and learning more about you and your body over time.

Stress alerts

It's a funny feeling when you know you've got lots of wearables strapped to your body that aren't there to count steps but instead are quietly collecting data about your emotional state. It's hard to not feel a bit tense, especially when it starts alerting you to how you're feeling...

The Spire is the best device out of the stress line-up to send you alerts. You can decide yourself what kind of alerts you like, whether you want to be told when you're calm or when you're tense or just open the flood gates and get a little buzz about everything. Emotional masochist that I am, I went for the final option.

When I was working a lot, I was notified about periods of focus. This made me feel really accomplished. I'm focused! Look how FOCUSED I am, I'd think. I'd then be more focused and in a beautiful, productive focus upward trajectory. But wait, when I didn't get another notification about my focus, I started to wonder where my focus had disappeared off to. This, over the next few hours, then had the opposite effect and I received a notification telling me I was tense. I'd pushed myself into a tense state after applauding myself for focus. Oh human beings, eh?! That said, being alerted to focus did really help at times. I've started drawing when I feel stressed and just five minutes in I'd get an alert from the Spire app telling me I'm focused and calm. Maybe blowing a fortune on fancy pencils and missing deadlines in the name of creative therapy was worth it after all.

The Stress Test: Can a wearable really make you calmer?

Left to right: Spire, Bellabeat and WellBe apps

I'm a freelancer and tend to work from home and coffee shops. But one day during the test I went into an office and knew this would cause stress levels to peak. As expected, Spire alerted me I was stressed. A lot. At first this was really helpful, a gentle nudge to breathe deeper, maybe go for a walk and break my state. But later in the day, it just became a reminder of how difficult I find being in an office environment and how I hadn't got enough work done. It also told me I was tense a few times when I wasn't feeling tense. I started to question myself and think maybe I AM tense? Again, effectively working myself up into a state of prolonged tension.

I asked Chloe Brotheridge, Calmer You therapist and author of The Anxiety Solution, what she thought of being told how you're feeling: "Many people are so used to being tensed up and not breathing deeply that I think that something that helps them to be aware of this could be beneficial; a reminder to get into the habit of consciously relaxing and breathing more deeply. But, being told to calm down when you're stressed and tense might seem like another thing to add to your to-do list. Most kinds of stress and anxiety management techniques are best used as prevention rather than as an emergency tool to try to calm down. Trying to calm down when you're in panic mode can make you even more stressed as you battle against yourself."

It started to become achingly clear why Spire allows you to toggle alerts on and off and why you should choose them wisely. I'd recommend starting with those that alert you to calm periods and just experimenting with ones about stress rather than having them on 24/7.

The big pink stress test

WellBe also tracks your metrics throughout the day, but rather than the breathing-focused Spire, it collects heart rate readings to figure out your HRV. You're only alerted when your stress levels top 60%, which shockingly never happened to me even on the office day. But, you can conduct a Stress Test if you like. The aim of this isn't to see how stressed you are when you're out of control, but more part of an ongoing learning process to figure out whether a certain place, event or person makes you feel stressed.

WellBe told us: "We don't think stressed people will remember to check their stress levels, and that's why we have the automatic measure once an hour where user remains completely passive, so they don't even know they are being measured. The Check option is for those users who would like to measure stress in specific circumstances."

I conducted stress tests a few times in order to gauge whether my tense levels were really changing. I seemed to average at around 50% to 60% stress most times I checked, but at times this number felt a little useless and arbitrary. It was also presented in a big pink circle which seemed like someone was shouting at me on more than one occasion. (But that's maybe just me.)

Neither the Bellabeat nor the Fitbit Charge 2 have stress sensors for real time alerts. Bellabeat is more focused on a holistic approach and the Fitbit's heart rate monitor doesn't kick in and alert you throughout the day. We've got our fingers crossed that that might be the brand's next step.

Calming down

The process of calming down the wearer, educating them about what works and appealing to their senses to get them out of thought patterns is just as important as notifying them of problems or allowing them to track what stresses them out. It's not as simple as a steps goal; it has to be communicated in a sensitive and, crucially, accessible way.

Although Bellabeat can't alert you to stress, it has a great suite of meditation exercises that you're prompted to use each day. There's a nice mixture here built for all kinds of people and you wear the Bellabeat as you do them. I really enjoy meditating and find it extremely calming, so being able to choose between a range of different styles, times and types of meditation was really handy. "We started doing a little research among our users, talking about their day to day problems and concerns (sleep problems, anxiety, stress)," a Bellabeat spokesperson told us. "Most of them were everyday life situations so we started providing those specific meditations like falling asleep, finding calmness and peace during stressful times, practicing mindfulness while commuting."

The Stress Test: Can a wearable really make you calmer?

Left to Right: Fitbit Charge 2 (back), Bellabeat Leaf (front), Spire (front), WellBe (back)

Once you've completed a meditation, that adds points to the Meditation (a little lotus flower) part of your Stress Tracking score for the day. This mild gamification element won't appeal to everyone, but seeing how meditation could "up" my Stress Tracking score for the day - or lower it - felt like a small achievement. I began to wonder whether that little hit of "oh, I did something nice for myself today" may have had a positive impact on my emotional state, albeit small.

Similarly, WellBe does have a good Relax section, which is full of meditations. I tried a selection of them and they worked to calm me down when I was in need of a relaxing pick-me-up. What WellBe also has is Programs, which are designed to be followed over time rather than dipped in and out of like the meditations. I loved everything WellBe had to offer, but as I wasn't getting alerts from WellBe and also didn't have other reasons to check the app, like I did with the Bellabeat, I found I didn't use them enough. It felt more detached than the others.

Spire was my favourite in this respect. Open up the app and you're presented with a breath wave. This shows your breaths per minute and your average breaths per minute. What this does is gives you a real-time indication of your breathing before you've even started one of the calming Boosts. There's a little icon in the bottom right hand corner that visualises a bunch of dots. You breathe out and they expand, you breathe in and they contract. The better your breathing, the more dots you'll turn green. For me, this was brilliant. It took away the science and the stats and became about me and my breathing, visualising it in a way that felt intuitive and not scientific. Overall, this calmed me down the most and actually stopped a few trains of runaway thoughts.

I asked Chloe Brotheridge, the Calmer You therapist, why focusing on my breath, doing away with a guided meditation and just staring at little green circles worked so well for me: "Focusing on your breathing is a form of meditation. There is loads of evidence that meditation calms the mind and body and making a game of it could be ideal for those who feel they can't do traditional meditation. Deep breathing calms the fight or flight response and paying close attention to your breathing is a way to strengthen your mindfulness muscle, helping you to be in the moment and engaged in the here and now."

The Stress Test: Can a wearable really make you calmer?

The Fitbit Charge 2's Relax feature

Keen to understand a bit more about why Spire focuses on visualisations as well as guided meditation, I asked a Spire spokesperson who explained: "After listening to users' feedback, we realized that putting in headphones during a stressful situation wasn't always feasible, so we sought to harness the breath visually in the most immersive way we could imagine. Testing various visualisations including clouds and large organic shapes helped us break up the data into a visually compelling experience. For us, the Breath Guide marks the beginning of a major step for meditation in the digital age and a new tool to augment awareness to our breath."

The Fitbit Charge 2's Relax feature, meanwhile, is just a nice-to-have addition to the wearable's ecosystem right now. Which means there's no way to notify you that you need to relax, you need to do it yourself. Once you're there, the Charge 2 will sense your heart rate and then guide you through a series of breathing exercises in which you inhale and exhale to keep a little circle "beating". The visualisation is bog standard, but I found the tracking to be accurate and the simplicity was actually really easy to follow. I certainly felt calmer afterwards. Just like the Spire, this felt silly at first, but there was something almost hypnotic about staring at the circle and getting out of my own head for a bit.

But, and it's a huge but, the responsibility with all of these (other than the Spire's notifications) is on you to remember to keep yourself calm. As we all know, one of the biggest issues with managing stress and anxiety is remembering to take steps to work yourself out of that state.

Long term learning

Although Bellabeat isn't as smart as the other devices when it comes to alerting you of stress or showing how well you're doing throughout visualisations, it's one of the best when it comes to painting a long-term picture of your stress and what might be impacting it. It's not good for those who are data-driven and want stats, but if your goal is to make meditating habitual, become more aware of how your exercise, sleep, period and meditative practice affects your stress and take a bit more ownership over your well-being, this is for you.

"We are aware that you can't always avoid stressful situations and the purpose of this feature isn't to tell you that you're stressed," a Bellabeat rep told us. "The goal is to prevent stress by showing you how to prepare and stay strong and motivated. Noticing stress can help women cultivate a more mindful attitude toward their bodies, which can bring practical benefits for their health."

The Stress Test: Can a wearable really make you calmer?

Bellabeat and Spire meditation and breathing exercises

Just like Bellabeat, WellBe's aim is to provide you with lots of insights in its Learn section about the Places, Schedule and Meeting plans that have spiked stress levels. I felt like this made sense on paper, but in actual fact didn't tell me much I didn't know. It also requires you to be super organised which a lot of us aren't. It might have been more useful if I was alerted in real-time, rather than looking back.

Spire presents your stats in charts that were really easy to understand throughout the week. Green for calm, blue for focus, red for tense, yellow for activity, grey for sedentary. You can see how things progress over time and which days you did better on as it's all laid out in little bar charts. Looking back, this is why I'm not sure WellBe's granular analysis of the day is necessary, most of us know what happened on which day and can figure out why. Again, the Fitbit Charge 2 doesn't deserve a mention here, because it doesn't let you turn your relaxing breathing exercises into meaningful data. Maybe soon.

How did I actually feel?

A preoccupation with how calm I was feeling and how stressed I was had some positive effects. For example, I remembered that I can take small steps to control my emotions more, meditated more than I usually do and focused a lot more on my breathing. At the same time, constantly thinking about stress can, unsurprisingly, make you stress. There's a lot to be said for living mindfully, but there's a line when a calm, mindful, checking-in with your emotions becomes a bit obsessive. And of course that's subjective. I'm prone to worrying and overthinking. Other people might have more success. But then if they're not prone to worrying and over-thinking do they really need to fork out a load of cash on a wearable all about worrying and overthinking?

Much the same can be said for being alerted to stress. Often, the alerts that I'm feeling tense felt counter-intuitive. But if you're not alerted will you take the necessary steps to calm yourself down usually? If you're not alerted, the responsibility is on you. But as many of us who feel stressed know, the last thing going through your mind is how should I calm myself down and be all happy and chilled right now?

It's clear there are benefits here. But there are also plenty of challenges too. I found the most valuable part to be the programs designed to calm me down, whether that was guided meditation or the relaxing visualisations. And there was something powerful about seeing how my body responded in real time, through HRV or breathing. There was also something powerful about charting my ability to take these steps over time, particularly with the Bellabeat app.

Under the right circumstances, being able to take control of your state of mind easily from your wrist is good. But cultivating that state of action in a way that doesn't feel annoying, or bring on more stress, still might need to be ironed out. You've got to want to calm down and be in a state to take care of yourself. I know from first hand experience that sometimes the last thing you want when everything feels terrible is someone telling you to meditate and imagine sunshine and rainbows. This is precisely when a much more detached, data-driven approach from Spire worked well because it's based on breathing and actual, real-time data. It doesn't rely on my mind playing along to a guided meditation quite so much.

Everyone is different which makes recommendations tricky. For some, meditation might work, for others a wearable might or changing habits, counselling, therapy, medication. But if you want to better understand how stressed you are, be alerted about when you are and have a little calming lifeline on your wrist, they could be a good method to consider. I'd personally recommend the Spire over any of the others. Sure it's a bit pricey, but it's easy to wear, you can customise alerts and, most importantly, it might even calm you down.

What do you think?

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