Is wearable sensor tech really the stress-buster modern humans need?

28-03-2018 |   |  By Paul Whytock

April is Stress Awareness Month and has been ever since 1992 and, no, this is not an April 1st spoof story but a look at a stress-related study using wearable technology.

I think most of us are all too well aware of the prolific outpourings of marketing hyperbole telling us how wearable technology can resolve stress problems.

So how is it that stress is affecting so many people when apparently so many of us are either wearing or carrying health monitoring technology that provides the analysis essential to guiding us smoothly through life in a state of stress-free karma?

To continue the search for an answer to that question this April will see hordes of health professionals congregate to try and hammer out cures for what many of them see as the stress epidemic impacting on modern lives.

I, like many, am not immune to looking at a bit of the wearable tech I carry with me all day, everyday – the health app on my iPhone. It tells me how far I have walked and how many steps I have taken, although now I totally disregard the "I-must-achieve-10,000-steps-a-day- mantra." Apparently this was born out of nothing more than an advertising gimmick for a Japanese pedometer company whose product was called Manpo-Kei. The Man element of that name translates to 10,000 and po means steps.

wearable technology for anxiety and stress

But the reality is that stress has in fact reached near epidemic proportions. So much so that estimates suggest around 65-75% of doctors appointments are to deal with stress or conditions that have stress–related indications.

So given all the trillions of bytes of health data that all this trendy wearable tech is providing us humans what exactly is happening about the pragmatic reduction of stress?

An interesting study early this year has been completed using digital sensing equipment that has compiled what is claimed to be the largest global databank on stress detection.

Called Stress in the Work Environment, the study compiled information from a 1,000 people and is said to be the first large-scale study that used wearable technology to establish the link between mental stress and physiological symptoms that humans feel in daily life.

Pretty much all of us experiences sporadic incidences of stress but it is the long-term chronic conditions that can have a significant impact on mental and physical well-being.

According to the American Institute of Stress, stress is estimated to cost the US economy approximately $300 billion a year and here in Europe the annual cost of stress to businesses is thought to be €514 billion with a further €63 billion in healthcare costs.

According to the Stress in the Work Environment study performed by research and nanotechnology hub Imec, it is important to identify stress signals immediately and to provide rapid feedback so individuals can employ stress reduction strategies. Hardly rocket science but possibly crucial when it comes to heart conditions.

During the study the participants’ basic stress levels and activators were determined using psychological questionnaires. They were then fitted with a stress monitor bracelet and a wireless ECG patch which they wore constantly for five days. The ECG patch monitored heart rate and heart rhythm variability as well as acceleration (movement). The stress wristband used algorithms to measure skin temperature and skin conductance.

The latter item, skin conductance, is more usually referred to as electrodermal activity (EDA) and relates to the continuous variation in the electrical characteristics of the skin.

The basic premise of EDA is that skin resistance varies with the state of sweat glands in the skin. Sweating is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system and EDA is an indication of psychological or physiological reactions.

In other words certain worrying life experiences can make you sweat more. Perhaps these days one of those is forgetting to put on your wearable tech before leaving for work in the morning or getting post from the tax man!

Returning to the study, physiological stress symptoms were supplemented by the Imec researchers with data collected through the participants’ smart phones, such as GPS data, phone activity and noise level and self-reported information.

Participants were queried two hourly via a smart phone app to evaluate their self-reported stress levels and to answer multiple-choice questions about their daily activities, food and drink intake, sleep quality and digestive processes. In addition, they also completed the Montreal Imaging Stress Task, a 20 minute-stress test that allowed researchers to calibrate participants’ stress levels with their personal physiological symptoms.

The researchers felt that this study showed that multiple wearables can establish a link with stress by monitoring physiological stress symptoms and real life factors. Or, to put it more simply, wearable stress sensors can show us what winds up as we go about a daily life.

So how will wearable tech really help to cut back those serious, health jeopardising stress levels? Ultimately it is still in the hands of the stressed-out human to recognise the data from wearables such as heart rate, respiration rate and perspiration level and relate them to the timing of an incidence that caused the increases.

But don't most of us do this already as a matter of self-preservation. Most humans know what stresses them, it's whether or not they can avoid that situation and of course sometimes in the work environment that is extremely difficult. And being festooned with all manner of wearable tech ain't going to change that.


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By Paul Whytock

Paul Whytock is European Editor for Electropages. He has reported extensively on the electronics industry in Europe, the United States and the Far East for over twenty years. Prior to entering journalism he worked as a design engineer with Ford Motor Company at locations in England, Germany, Holland and Belgium.

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