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Stress tracking wearables: Are we there yet?

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Are wearables ready to help deal with day-to-day stress? Let’s find out.

COVID-19 has amplified the conversation around stress. Factors such as separation anxiety, work from home, uncertainty about the future and being fearful about the well-being of loved ones have plagued each one of us. Often, stress can contribute to various health problems such as an increased risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and anxiety or depression. In these challenging times, we all need a reminder to take a breather now and then to put our minds at ease. This is where wearables can come in and give a friendly nudge to take a timeout based on elevated levels of stress signals in the body.

Over the past few years, wearables have taken a big leap from counting steps for achieving fitness goals to providing sensors that can detect changes to well-being and even point out signs of a fever or illness. To keep up with these stressful times, companies such as Fitbit, Samsung, Garmin, and Apple have all introduced features such as stress scores, guided breathing and mindfulness.

For instance, the Fitbit Sense reportedly features the world’s first electrodermal activity (EDA) sensor on a smartwatch to help manage stress, along with heart rate tracking, an ECG app, and an on-wrist skin temperature sensor. Built by behavioural health experts with expertise in diagnosing and treating mental health and guidance from medical experts, the device can also help track heart rate variability (HRV) and breathing rate. Recent research has found that monitoring HRV can detect stress with 90 per cent accuracy.

The EDA sensor works by putting your palm over the dial for two minutes. It looks at tiny changes in the sweat level of the skin, which may be due to stress factors such as movement, noise or temperature change. The app also provides guided mindfulness sessions to see how the body responds during meditation or relaxation. Over time progress can be understood through the EDA response graph displayed on the mobile app.

The device packs sensors to measure stress level, the amount of oxygen (SpO2) in blood, as well as changes in skin temperature and heart rhythm, while providing robust sleep and fitness tracking insights. The SpO2 feature makes it easier to track oxygen saturation levels while sleeping and provides insights on how difficult or easy it was to breathe during the night. Plus, it can calculate baseline skin temperature after wearing it to bed for three nights and allows one to observe nightly average variation versus baseline skin temperature.

The device also features a Health Metric dashboard and Stress Management Scores that analyse how the body responds to stress based on heart rate, sleep, and activity level. The scores range from 1 to 100. The higher score is an indicator that the body is showing fewer physical signs of stress. The score is calculated by tracking activity, heart rate, HRV, EDA activity and sleep patterns. The app also offers tips on how to manage stress better, improve stress scores, and allows to set a weekly mindfulness goal and log moods.

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I have been wearing the device for over five months now and find myself to be calmer and more aware of my breathing and how my body works. Its sleek look, long battery life and focus on health and wellness are a big hit for me. The Stress Management Scores have really helped me monitor my well-being, and I was able to raise it from 74 to 82 from the time I have been tracking. My goal is to raise the score to 90 by the end of the year.

A session that has stuck with me is called the ‘Practice of Noting’ which suggests that noting and labelling thoughts and feelings can make one feel more aware of mental patterns that can affect behaviour. So, for instance, when the mind starts to wander, one can give a name to their feelings and then gently come back to focusing on the breathing. The exercise has helped me organise my thoughts better on waking up and has made me become more in tune with stressors in the environment and how to deal with them.

Taking this a step further, Fitbit has partnered with wellness coach Deepak Chopra, M.D., a pioneer in integrative health and well-being. The app features video and audio sessions featuring Chopra on topics such as mindfulness, sleep, stress management and mental wellness.

These features help to build a complete mental well-being picture that might even assist the wearables of the future to detect anxiety and panic disorders in advance. As technology involves and the latest upgrades come in, wearables show great promise in helping to understand mental health better as well as to detect other diseases and health conditions in the future.

This article appears in the latest issue of Omnia Health Magazine. Read the full issue online today.  

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