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Can your smartwatch help you manage the stress in your life and reach the path of the zen?

Without talking about panic attacks, life is stressful. Nobody will disagree. We all know this feeling of sweaty hands before talking in front of an audience or meeting a new important customer. Stress is not always bad and is just a reaction of the body to the unknown.

According to the American Heart American, Chronic stress can lead to severe health problems such as heart attacks and even decrease the lifespan by up to five years. Individuals should be seen holistically, and no distinction should be made between the mind and the body.

Twenty years ago, Dr. Rosalind Picard from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published the first book on affective computing. Today, fitness trackers and smartwatches are opening the doors to tracking emotions, and the benefits for our health can be as important as physical activity.

Fitness bands or smartwatches are with us for good. One in five Americans wears some form of a wearable device. Are smartwatches with stress tracker the new magic tool to analyze and manage our lives more effectively and limit chronic stress’s health consequences? Let’s check!

How to measure stress with wearables devices?

Smartwatches are now real health powerhouses. The newest models, such as the Garmin Sense, offer a dedicated sensor to track stress.

Stress is a highly hormonal and a normal reaction to real or just perceived danger. When faced with the unknown, a massive flow of Adrenaline will rush into our veins. To understand how to measure stress, the key point is to know how our body reacts.

Image: Tim Goedhart

Adrenaline and cortisol are the main hormones of stress and will prepare our body for a fight. The heart rate and blood pressure will increase while our pupils will dilate. Our muscles will receive an inflow of blood, and even our metabolism will maximize glucose levels.

Fitness trackers are really good at measuring heart rate. Up to recently, stress monitoring was principally a question of measuring the heart rate’s sudden elevation.

Focusing only on the heart rate is somehow not enough to reliably define the level of stress. It explains why, in recent years, other stress indicators were used. Most smartwatches makers introduced the Heart Rate Variability (HRV) as an indicator of stress. Fitbit Sense went one step further and added a new sensor devoted to stress management, the Electro Dermal Activity (EDA) sensor.

When stressed, the vessels will dilate and produce a subtle but measurable 0.1 to 0.2°C increase in the skin temperature.

HRV/EDA: What are the differences?

Wearables rely on different technologies to asses the level of stress. By combining data from different sources, smartwatches have the ability to recognize in what mental state you are in. Scary? Maybe…but at least most of the apps offer solutions such as guided breathing sessions to better cope with stress.

The heart Rate Variability as a behavioral indicator

Measuring stress in real-time is the grail for any health and fitness smartwatch maker. Can you imagine receiving in real-time gentle reminders from your watch advising you to relax and even offering you a quick guided breathing exercise?

The Heart Rate variability relates to the time between two heartbeats. The interesting point about the HRV is that we do not control it as the Autonomic Nervous System controls it. A low HRV is an early sign of depression and can even be used to predict heart diseases.

Numerous relaxations and breathing apps focus on increasing HRV. The bottom line is that HRV is not purely related to stress, but it is a good metric to assess the mental and behavioral states.

Electrodermal Activity as a physiological indicator

Electrodermal Activity (EDA), also known as Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), is easy to understand. It relates to sweaty hands. As for the HRV, the Autonomic Nervous System controls sweat production and can not be tricked voluntarily.

The more sweaty the hands and the more conductive the skin will be. Fitbit might be the first to integrate such sensors in their flagship smartwatch, but numerous sensors and wristbands already exist to record EDA more professionally.

If you are fascinated with the EDA and have deep pockets, we recommend using the ProComp Infiniti, Biopac MP150, Shimmer 3 GSR+, and Empatica E4. The tracking features of these devices aimed at mental health professionals are mostly used in laboratories but provide readings that surpass what can be found at this stage in a smartwatch.

Best “stress smartwatches” to help you relax

Most of the premium smartwatches now offer ways to detect and limit the levels of stress. Choosing the right one depends mostly on the budget and the other functions offered.

Fitbit Sense

The Fitbit Sense is hands down, the smartwatch that offers more data when dealing with stress. Fitbit’s flagship can record the heart rate, electrocardiogram (ECG), HRV, and the temperature, but the company is the first to have included a dedicated EDA sensor.

Recording your level of stress is easy. Just launch the stress scan in the app. and place your hand over the watch for two minutes.

One of the regrets we have is that it is impossible to continuously record the stress level due to the need to close the circuit by holding the watch. The same goes for the temperature, which is only recorded during the sleep tracking mode.

Fitibit sense and stress application
Image: Fitbit
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To make the most of the Fitbit Sense’s health and wellness superpowers, you will somehow have to subscribe to Fitbit’s Premium subscription. The Premium Membership will cost you $9.99/mo and $79.99 for the annual membership, saving over thirty percent. Fitbit Premium will not only put a fitness coach in your pocket but also provide advanced insights and content to help relax, sleep well, and tips to manage stress. Fitbit currently offers a 90-day free trial.

By combining data from different sources, Fitbit Sense algorithms provide a reliable measure of the stress level. With more than 6 days of continuous use, the Sense’s battery life is also the best on the market.

Even without the presence of the new EDA sensor and for a cheaper price, the Fitbit Versa 3 is also a solid stress detection device and one to consider for day stress tracking.

Apple Watch Series 5 and Series 6

Apple introduced the Breathe App with watchOS 3. The goal was to help relax and follow the haptic cues to concentrate on breathing and relax. The App. can send reminders to the user every five hours to suggest a break and relax while concentrating on breathing.

The Apple watch is on the way to measure stress
Image: Apple
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The Apple Watch Series 5 mainly relies on the analysis of the HRV to quantify the level of stress. In 2018, a team of Spanish scientists confirmed the Apple Watch’s ability to measure the HRV reliably and extract relevant information about the wearer’s mental state.

Thanks to WatchOS 7, sleep tracking is now available but remains behind the Fitbit Sense in terms of information provided.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2

The Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2 introduced Samsung’s stress meter. Like the Apple Watch, the level of stress relies on the heart rate monitors and HRV. With numerous watch faces, the Galaxy will not disappoint, and the various tracking features will satisfy even the most demanding users.

By measuring the HRV, the Samsung galaxy watch active 2 gives an idea of the stress level
Image: Samsung
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In less than 30 seconds, the Stress Tracker within Samsung Health app will assess the level of anxiety. Interestingly, contrary to the EDA sensor, the stress level can be recorded continuously, every 10 minutes or manually.

Following the test, the app will suggest guided breathing exercises to help find peace of mind again and help you feel good.

Garmin Vivosmart 4

For less than $100, the Garmin Vicosmart 4 will also offer a continuous analysis of the stress levels based on the recordings of the Heart Rate Variability based on Firstbeat Technology.

The ‘Relax Reminder’ features can be activated in the Garmin Connect app and send a gentle reminder to practice a couple of deep breaths and relax when the watch detects excessive anxiety. For a smartwatch priced under $100, the Garmin Vivosmart is a great way to benefit from a modern, slick, and stress compatible wearable. We consider it as a perfect introduction to the world of smartwatches.

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Other wearables to manage stress

Some companies now offer solutions to improve your breathing and meditation. The idea being that Well-being does not only mean a healthy body but a healthy mind as well.

Muse or the meditation headband

The Muse meditation headband was first introduced in 2014. The company introduced Muse 2 in 2018 and quite recently their most advanced product: Muse S. Contrary to smartwatches which can be worn at all times, these meditations headbands are in a different league when dealing with stress.

The headbands are full of sensors to directly record the tiny electrical signals produced by the brain’s activities. It offers a true user-friendly 7 leads Electroencephalogram (EEG).

The muse band is the ultimate stress control wearable.
Image: Muse
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The associated app. offers more than 300 meditation sessions and allows to select the length of the meditation session. Depending on your mental state (active, neutral, or calm), the app will select specific music or sounds to relax and act as a stress reliever.

By recording your brain activity and adapting the environment to enhance the meditation, the Muse offers a fully immersive experience to reduce stress and practice relaxation techniques.

The only drawback is that the Muse headbands do not come cheap: $249.99 for the oldest Muse 2 and $349.99 for the Muse S that also offers a Go to Sleep mode, which helps to fall asleep. Considering the technology behind and the many benefits offered by Muse, these mediation wearables’ price is somehow reasonable.

Moodmetric or the stress measurement ring

The Finnish company Moodmetric is dedicated to measuring the stress levels in professional environments. To this end, they developed a ring using EDA sensors. The ring records stress continuously for approximately 12 hours. The data should then be synchronized via Bluetooth with the smartphone app. We regret that the ring is not waterproof and should be removed each time you wash your hands. For more than $200 per ring, we hope that the new version of this stress dedicated ring will survive a shower or a hand wash.

Moodmetric ring
Image: Moodmetric

Interestingly, the company also offers Group Measurement services. Companies will have access to a support group session where experts from Moodmetric will help interpret the data collected on their staff during a 2 weeks period. This is a great way for companies to understand better their team members’ behavioral health and how stress can impact an organization’s performance.

The idea of using the ring in the whole organization is excellent. It can certainly provide new ways for organizations to ensure peace of mind to their staff and ultimately improve the bottom line.

Managing the stress with a smartwatch: Is it really worth it?

Nobody will object when we say that our life is stressful. That is why Smartwatches’ makers integrate more and more sensors and algorithms to enhance our mental well-being and encourage practice relaxation. With its new EDA sensor, Fitbit is leading the way. No doubt that the competitors will follow their path and that the coming months and years will see the emergence of applications devoted to reducing anxiety.

More than two thousand years ago, the Romans regarded the mind and the body as a whole. For them, Wellness and a healthy lifestyle start with a “healthy mind in a healthy body.” Smartwatches now offer numerous ways to measure and measure our current state of mind.

No doubt that the development of new sensors dedicated to measuring stress will continue. Soon smartwatches that track stress will become precious tools measuring our physical state and our state of mind.