Stress? Wearables from Fitbit, Apple and others want to help

Connected watches and fitness trackers have been measuring our physical well-being for years. Now they are also trying to help us manage our mental health.

The recently announced Fitbit Sense2, which will launch this fall, is one of the latest examples of how tech companies are expanding their wellness offerings to encompass stress management and general mental wellbeing. Fitbit’s new premium smartwatch can measure signs of stress throughout the day, building on the on-demand checks of the previous Sense. The Happy Health startup also recently launched the Happy Ring, which claims to track stress levels in real time. Both announcements come after Apple launched its Mindfulness app for the Apple Watch last year.

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Why this sudden interest in making us less stressed? It’s a question only Fitbit and the other companies behind these products can respond. But it’s no surprise that tech companies big and small are paying more attention to mental health in addition to physical fitness.

Wearable devices can already measure body signals that once would have required a trip to the doctor or a stand-alone device, such as heart rate, temperature, blood oxygen saturation and heart rate variability. They’ve also gotten pretty good at monitoring our sleep patterns, including how much time we spend in different stages of sleep. Mental well-being seems like a natural next step, especially as adults around the world are feeling more stressed than ever.

“Modern life was hard enough with constant technology, ubiquitous communication and the pace of life,” said Dr. Debra Kissen, CEO of Light On Anxiety Treatment Center, which specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy services. “And then throw in a pandemic, and I think that really brought to the surface mental health issues that have always been undeniably there.”

The Fitbit Sense 2 can continuously monitor for signs of stress, unlike the previous model.

Fitbit

There’s another simple reason wearables are expanding into new areas like mental wellness: technology is improving. Now that the sensors needed to measure basic metrics like heart rate and steps have been on the market for a while, it’s easier to narrow them down.

“The more mature it is, the more it could be miniaturized, the more likely we are to be able to integrate it into a watch, a bracelet or something that we wear,” said Julie Ask, vice president and principal analyst at market cabinet of Forrester studies.

The new headline feature of the Fitbit Sense 2 is its ability to continuously measure electrodermal activity (EDA), or changes in your skin’s sweat level. These changes may indicate a bodily reaction to stress, although Fitbit says factors such as movement, noise and temperature can also impact EDA. The Sense 2 combines these measurements with skin temperature, heart rate variability and heart rate data to notice when you might be stressed. The previous version of the Sense allows wearers to perform EDA checks on demand, but lacks the technology to passively measure changes throughout the day.

The recently announced Happy Ring claims to connect “the dots between your mental and physical health.” Like the Fitbit Sense, the Happy Ring can also monitor electrodermal activity to detect potential stress. Co-founded by Sean Rad, one of the founders of Tinder, Happy Health claims that ring readings become more personalized the longer you wear them.

The Fitbit Sense 2 and Happy Ring may be two of the latest wearables focused on mental wellness, but they’re certainly not the only devices to do so. In 2021, Apple renamed the Apple Watch Breathe App like the Mindfulness app, which added a new tool called Reflect in addition to the breathing sessions. As the name suggests, this feature presents the user with a prompt to reflect, such as a time when you overcame a challenge or something you are grateful for. Apple may be planning to expand its ambitions in this area even further, as The Wall Street Journal reports that the iPhone maker is working on technology that can look for signs of depression and cognitive decline.

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The “Breathe” face of the Apple Watch

Apple

The Oura ringwhich measures data such as heart rate, skin temperature and activity, has also been used in a study exploring whether data from smartphones and wearables can be used to predict symptoms of depression and anxiety .

The question is whether wearable devices are useful for managing stress. According to Kissen, bodily signals such as EDA and heart rate variability can be good signs of a change in the physiology and activation of the sympathetic nervous system. A study published in the April-June 2022 edition of the Journal of Medical Signals and Sensors also found that EDA has the potential to classify stress levels.

But changes in body markers like heart rate, sweating and blood pressure may not always indicate stress and could be a sign of other conditions, said Yale University assistant professor Dr. Charles A. Odonkor. School of Medicine, to CNET via email. He added that he hadn’t seen any studies involving wearable devices showing that these devices caused changes in cortisol levels, which the Mayo Clinic describes as “the primary stress hormone.”

“The real test is whether these wearable devices can differentiate stress states from other physiological states,” he said.

Still, being aware that you might be under stress and having the tools to track those times could be helpful, according to Kissen and Odonkor. Especially if you notice that you are stressed sooner rather than later.

“The sooner we catch stress, and when we do something,” Dr. Kissen said, “the healthier things will be.”

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