Wearable tech has come a long way from souped-up pedometers that congratulate you on reaching your 10,000 step goal each day and little else.
Now wearables are well on their way to collecting more sophisticated data than we could have imagined a mere two years ago, like reading our glucose levels, keeping an eye on pollution in the air and measuring our body composition, just to name a few.
One trend that’s birthed a number of innovative startups, as well as making big tech brands sit up and take notice, is using wearables to gauge our mental state, whether that’s our level of focus, whether we’re feeling stressed or even our moods.
Taking well-being into our own hands
Medical professionals have long pointed to the direct correlation between the long term impact stress and anxiety has on our general health. So it’s no surprise that tech companies claiming to paint an overall picture of our health are starting to use biometric feedback to improve our emotional wellbeing and stress just as much as our physical health and fitness.
As well as that, there’s a general move towards people becoming more interested in their own well-being than ever before, as well as feeling empowered to take steps to change their lifestyles and make improvements themselves - whether that’s joining a gym or trying mindfulness meditation with the help of an app.
Finally, tech that allows us to find out more about what’s going on in our minds has improved. Wearables aren’t just fitted with accelerometers to count steps, but there are all kinds of sensors that can be put to good use in order to track, quantify and feedback information about our mental wellbeing - whether that’s through tracking your breath or reading EEG neurofeedback from your brain.
So what does the future hold? Will a Fitbit for our mind be popular? What can we do with the data? And will everyone appreciate being told they’re stressed when they’re feeling stressed?
To answer some of our burning questions about using tech to track our minds, we chatted to Neema Moraveji, the director of Stanford University’s Calming Technology Lab and the co-founder of Spire, one of the first wearables built to track wellbeing.
How your breath unlocks secrets to your stresses
There are a number of devices on the market that have been created for wellbeing tracking. From breathing tracking with , to heart rate tracking with through to ‘brain sensing’ wearables, like , and , which combines all kinds of data to read your mood.
Big tech brands are using this kind of tech and building it into multi-purpose wearables, like the Apple Watch’s Breathe app and the stress tracking smarts in Garmin’s latest wearable, the .
But as one of the first devices in the wellbeing tech space, we were keen to find out more about Spire and how it works.
“Spire comes out of research we conducted specifically on using respiratory monitoring paired with digital devices to understand and manage stress,” Neema Moraveji told us.
He continued: “It leverages decades of research from labs around the world on understanding what respiratory patterns reveal about cognitive/emotional state (e.g., respiration patterns can differentiate stress from focus) and how to use respiration for self-regulation (e.g., using respiration to reduce feeling pain in burn patients).”
Essentially, Spire uses a number of sensors and algorithms to identify how you’re breathing. From there, it identifies whether your breathing is characterised by parasympathetic activation, which is more calm, or sympathetic, which is more stressed.
But not all stress is created equal
In our eyes, the biggest hurdle to overcome when it comes to stress tracking is subjectivity. We were keen to find out how Spire and other wearables in the space are being tested in a range of settings - with a range of different people.
“We’re collaborating and supporting research being conducted by different organisations using Spire,” Moraveji explains.
“There’s academic labs using Spire to support stress management in organisations; health organisations using Spire to collect data on how the breathing of COPD patients changes during treatment; non-profit organisations using Spire to reduce stress of high school students as they prepare for college entrance examinations and applications; health practitioners deploying Spire to divorced parents to reduce the emotional impact of divorce on children.”
Digging deeper into the idea of subjective experiences of stress, we wanted to understand whether stress tracking is broadly effective, or whether it can bring about great results for some and further exasperation for others.
This is certainly the case with more fitness-focused wearables, so we imagine it’ll be even more apparent when it comes to the mind. Being told you didn’t hit your steps goal can be disappointing. Being told you spent the day stressed might leave you feeling even worse than you did before.
“Research on feedback has largely surrounded classroom learning,” Moraveji explains. “In that context, feedback can be frustrating when it’s about one’s identity (e.g., 'you are stressed out') or the suggestion is vague (e.g.,'Try to take it easier and lower your stress').”
Creating better, personalised experiences
So what’s the answer? Moraveji thinks it’s less about people and more about tech.
“The fact that people respond to stress feedback differently is less about individual differences and more about the immaturity of this industry in how it delivers feedback,” he told us. “One answer is providing actionable feedback and ensuring users see it as .”
Of course, this kind of tech really is still in its infancy, but we asked Moraveji what he thought the future would - and should - hold for stress tracking.
Moraveji said: “Research has been done on sensing symptoms of stress including neurophysiological indicators such as respiration and heart rate variability, contextual cues like the way one is typing on a keyboard, the kinds of words one uses in email, and even the quality of one’s voice.
“However, very few of these have made it into widespread commercial deployment. Part of the reason for this is that simply telling somebody that they might be experiencing atypical stress is insufficient and can even be frustrating if a compensatory action is not delivered alongside it.”
It’s interesting that his vision of the future is more of a joined-up approach. Imagine being able to tell you’re feeling stressed from the language you use in an email combined with breath data and being served up recommendations about what to do?
If you’re prone to stress and anxiety, you need to be given steps and advice, or you’re not likely to make much progress.
“Most research on actually addressing stress has been in the context of clinical practice, usually offline, and not using technology,” Moraveji told us.
“Now, technologists are putting these proven interventions online for increased accessibility but this mapping from offline to online is not always straightforward or effective.”
And the answer is, again, personalisation: “Based on research, user feedback, and user interviews, we believe a promising future for stress tracking includes passive, comprehensive tracking to provide concrete insights that motivate action in the context of user-personalised goals.”
The problems with defining stress and calm
A huge part of the ambiguity here is likely that a lot of the words and descriptions of emotional states have no clear definition.
Moraveji agreed: “There is no universal known definition of ‘calm’; rather, an indication when the user is veering from their personal baseline. The moment you begin using Spire, it updates its baseline data about you and continues to do so as you use it.”
And when it comes to differences, let’s not look beyond the more simple things that set us apart; for example BMI, general body composition and different styles of breathing. Moraveji says the development of Spire is constantly informed by these subtle differences and earlier in the year the algorithm was changed to improve sensitivity for more tense breathing in certain individuals.
Working with mental health and medical experts
Although wellbeing tracking for the masses could be hugely beneficial in helping us all to better understand stress and our triggers, it could also have the biggest benefits for those with more serious conditions, like severe anxiety and even PTSD.
“We’ve created a clinical protocol that practitioners can use to help their patients manage symptoms of anxiety and stress using Spire,” Moraveji explains.
“The protocol is complemented by a portal and Client Dashboard (currently in Beta testing) that allows practitioners to monitor client progress using Spire state-of-mind data (tense, calm, focused breathing), behavioural data (did they do today’s guided practice?), physical activity, as well as underlying respiratory data.”
Although wellbeing tech is still in its infancy, there’s a lot of potential for niche startups like Spire and bigger tech brands like Apple and Garmin to help people better measure stress levels and understand their mental state more than ever before.
But, like with a lot of tech focused on our bodies and biometric feedback, the answer is personalisation. What might work for one person might not work for the next and a mixture of super sensitive algorithms, more advanced tech and feedback that proves useful, rather than more stressful, is needed for it to make a real, lasting difference.
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Becca is a contributor to TechRadar, a freelance journalist and author. She’s been writing about consumer tech and popular science for more than ten years, covering all kinds of topics, including why robots have eyes and whether we’ll experience the overview effect one day. She’s particularly interested in VR/AR, wearables, digital health, space tech and chatting to experts and academics about the future. She’s contributed to TechRadar, T3, Wired, New Scientist, The Guardian, Inverse and many more. Her first book, Screen Time, came out in January 2021 with Bonnier Books. She loves science-fiction, brutalist architecture, and spending too much time floating through space in virtual reality.