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How wearables can signal the need for stress reduction

This article is part of our continuing series on innovative healthcare in the age of COVID-19.

In our previous article, we looked at how wearables are contributing to remote patient monitoring. Now, we are exploring how wearables are helping people with psychological, mental and behavioral health.

In addition to the physical health effects of COVID-19, the pandemic also impacted many people’s mental health and well-being. McKinsey’s October 2020 consumer health survey revealed high levels of anxiety and distress, with 75% of respondents reporting distress, and 50% of respondents continuing to report anxiety and/or depression.

Many issues place a strain on mental health during the pandemic, including general uncertainty, worry about elders, limited visits with family and friends, work changes, economic issues, social distancing, vaccine availability, and more. That’s quite a list. With regular routines in upheaval, keeping up healthy habits became more difficult, and easy to let slip.

Exceptions such as Just this once I’ll skip my workout, or I didn’t sleep well last night can easily become patterns which are then more difficult to change. Technology can help show when such a pattern is developing. By tracking behaviors and presenting data in a meaningful way, users can gain insight into what is happening and how it affects them. Emerging wearable technology and products are enabling tracking by monitoring physiological indicators and biomarkers to help identify when the body is stressed.

Identifying patterns and predicting stressors

Monitoring apps can be extremely useful for analyzing data, identifying trends, and providing visual information that’s easy to understand at a glance. Having data about your sleep patterns can give you much more insight into problem-solving versus a vague sense that sometimes you don’t get enough sleep. Do you sleep well on weekends, but not on work nights? Is there a connection between your exercise level and sleep? These types of correlations can surface when you see the data presented visually.

In addition to identifying patterns that show up over time, wearable technology can also recognize biomarkers that could indicate a stress response. Being alerted that your pulse is quickening, and that your skin temperature is increasing could help you notice stress and detect triggers and patterns. With that information, you could then predict and better manage stressors, which is a valuable skill.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “The way a person can anticipate a certain stressor and then control it, largely defines the resulting stress response, how promptly and efficiently it is activated promoting adaptation, and how fast it is turned off once equilibrium has been recovered.” While wearables aren’t a replacement for therapy, they could help people start to notice stress building and possibly prevent escalation.

Linking physical to mental

Consumers are already familiar with apps like Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer for mindfulness exercises, guided meditations, and breathing techniques. Adding wearables to the toolkit could help provide alerts when stress management is needed.

Wearables like Feel from Sentio Solutions, a San Francisco-based tech company, are being developed with a sensory wristband to track physiological signals throughout the day to recognize emotional patterns, and a mobile app to provides advice, tools, and resources.

The PIP device currently on the market is described as a wireless biofeedback device which detects electrodermal activity (the electrical activity of the sweat glands in the skin), the idea being that when we’re stressed, we sweat more which increases skin’s electrical conductivity. Press your thumb to the device and it records sweat and heat, which its makers say provides a measurement of stress, visualized in charts on an app. The app also provides mindfulness exercises.

The Fitbit Sense launched in 2020 uses an EDA sensor to measure electrodermal activity – electrical changes in your skin’s sweat level. And Fitbit’s Stress Management score calculates how your body is responding to stress based on multiple biometric inputs.

Reliability is progressing

Sensors have been rapidly evolving to become even more sophisticated and capable of measuring many different factors, but what do we need to measure for psychological health? An increased heart rate or temperature without a known cause such as exercise or exertion might indicate mental stress; however, trackers are consumer devices, not medical devices.

A article reported that John Torous, a Harvard psychiatrist and head of the American Psychiatric Association's work group on the evaluation of smartphone apps said, “We’ve been using consumer wearables to measure things like sleep and heart rate and usually those things are reliable. But where technology falls short is converting those factors into reliable signs of psychological distress, Mere indicators of anxiety, like increased heart rate and skin temperature, cannot be added up to definitely show a particular condition.”

A Stanford research team is working towards identifying and quantifying the behavioral biomarkers contributing to stress, anxiety, and depression. They have identified 6 biotypes of depression connected to the wiring of the brain and how it can be disrupted resulting in specific symptoms. The team is developing a wearable device called MENTAID to help prevent and treat mental illness by continuously measuring physiological parameters, which is a departure from traditional mental health diagnostics that aren’t rooted in biological testing.

With more people experiencing stress during the pandemic, wearables are offering an at-home option to help people recognize when they are reacting to stress and encourage them to take steps to manage that stress. Even though we are hearing that it’s normal to be experiencing stress, the last thing we want is for chronic stress to be accepted as normal.

We’re extremely interested to see how using wearables and stress management apps can help people notice physiological stress symptoms and take action. Have you tried any stress-reducing apps? Let me know what you think about using wearables for mental health.

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