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?


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.


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