and fitness trackers have been measuring our physical well-being for years. Now they are trying to help us manage our mental health too.
The recently announced, which launched this fall, is one of the latest examples of how tech companies are expanding their wellness offerings to include stress management and general mental well-being. Fitbit’s new high-end smartwatch can measure signs of stress throughout the day, building on the on-demand checks of the previous Sense. Startup Happy Health also recently introduced 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.
Why would sudden interest make us less stressed? It’s just a questionand the other companies behind these products can answer. But it’s no surprise that tech companies, big and small, are paying more attention to mental health in addition to physical fitness.
Wearables can now measure body signals that would once have required a trip to the doctor’s office 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 sleep phases. Mental health seems like a natural next step – especially as adults around the world feel more stressed than ever.
“Modern life has been difficult enough with constant technology and constant 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 add in a pandemic, and I think that really brought to the surface the mental health concerns that have always been undeniably there.”
There’s another simple reason wearables are expanding into new areas like mental health: the technology keeps getting better. 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 cut them down.
“The more mature it is, the more it can be miniaturized, the more likely we’ll be able to get it into a watch or a strap or something we wear,” said Julie Ask, vice president and chief market analyst at research firm Forrester.
The main new feature of the Fitbit Sense 2 is its ability to continuously measure electrodermal activity (EDA), or changes in your skin’s perspiration level. These changes may indicate the body’s response to stress, although Fitbit says factors such as movement, noise and temperature can also affect EDA. Sense 2 combines these measurements with skin temperature, heart rate variability and heart rate data to spot when you might be stressed. The previous version of Sense allowed users to perform EDA checks on demand, but lacked 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 Fitbit Sense, the Happy Ring can also monitor electrodermal activity to detect potential stress. Co-founded by Sean Rudd, one of the founders behind Tinder, Happy Health claims the ring’s readings become more personalized the more you wear it.
The Fitbit Sense 2 and Happy Ring may be two of the latest wearables to focus on mental health, but they’re certainly not the only devices doing so. In 2021, Apple rebranded the Apple Watch’ssuch as the Mindfulness app, which added a new tool called Reflect in addition to the breathing sessions. As the name suggests, this feature provides the user with a prompt for reflection, such as a time when you overcame a challenge or something you are grateful for. Apple may have plans to further expand its ambitions in this area, as The Wall Street Journal reports that the iPhone maker is working on technology that can look for signs of depression and cognitive decline.
Thewhich measures data such as heart rate, skin temperature and activity, was also used in a study investigating whether data from smartphones and wearable devices could be used to predict symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The question is whether wearables are helpful when it comes to managing stress. Body signals like EDA and heart rate variability can be good signs of a change in physiology and activation of the sympathetic nervous system, according to Kissen. A study published in the April-June 2022 issue of the Journal of Medical Signals and Sensors also found that EDA has the potential to classify stress levels.
But changes in body parameters such as heart rate, sweating and blood pressure may not always indicate stress and may be a sign of other conditions, Dr. Charles A. Odonkor, an assistant professor at Yale University School of Medicine, told CNET via email. He added that he hasn’t seen any studies involving wearable devices showing that the devices lead to changes in levels of cortisol, which the Mayo Clinic describes as “the primary stress hormone.”
“The real test is whether these wearables can distinguish stress states from other physiological states,” he said.
Still, being aware that you might be stressed and having tools to track those moments can be helpful, according to Kissen and Odonkor. Especially if you notice that you are stressed sooner or later.
“The sooner we catch stress and do something about it,” Dr. Kissen said, “the healthier things will be.”