Stress Tracking: How to Monitor Stress with Wearables

Stress Tracking
Credit: CIPHR Connect / Wiki Commons

What is stress tracking and how do the new devices help you monitor stress levels?

Wearable health gadgets, like calorie trackers, have been a mainstay for the last decade. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t use one on a regular basis. The OG models prioritized tracking our movement through the day, including the number of steps we take, miles we walk, minutes we exercise, and even stairs we climb. But in the last five years, a new generation of trackers has emerged, and they’ve gotten really, really smart.

In addition to monitoring our movements, this new fleet of wearable devices can track things like our heart rate, sleep quality, breathing patterns, and oxygen levels. And since those measurements are so deeply intertwined with our mental well-being, many of these devices can help us regulate, monitor, and even control our stress levels. Sounds crazy futuristic, but here we are: Stress-tracking devices are the new step-tracking devices, and the benefits may be more significant to our overall health.

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What is Stress Tracking and How Does it Work?

Stress is a two-fold deal that encompasses both our mental health and our physiological health. For example, a common cause of mental stress might be a hard day at work, a looming deadline or, you know, an unpredictable pandemic. Physiological stress refers to unhealthy pressures on our body. Often these two are woven together, and sometimes they feed off each other. For example, feeling sick or fatigued can exacerbate mental anguish.

“Most stress tracking devices on the market now look only at the physiological factors that can indicate the state your body is in to estimate your stress and recovery levels,” says Dr. Brian Mogen, chief scientific officer of Hapbee, a next-generation stress-monitoring and correcting advice. He says that measures of heart rate (how hard your heart is working) and heart rate variability (how consistent your heart is) are the most common data points.

Other measurable factors include body temperature and blood-oxygen levels. There are even trackers that monitor your posture, your blood sugar levels (without a needle!), your calories consumed, and your sleeping patterns. Generally speaking, though, these stress tracking devices keep an eye on a combination of the above measurements and then highlight when a certain factor moves out your normal range.

“For keeping track of the mental aspect of stress, we’re relying mostly on app-based questionnaires and check-ins,” adds Dr. Mogen. “There are a variety of academic research projects looking at how to measure mental stress levels by directly reading brain activity, but the technology is still clunky and hasn’t filtered out to the mass market yet.”

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The Benefits of Tracking Stress

“From an evolutionary perspective, human beings developed stress responses—both mental and physical—to temporary strains,” explains Dr. Mogen. Keeping track of these responses, including our breathing patterns and heart rate variability, can pay off in both the short- and the long-term, since we know that chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in the body and contributes to a number of health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, and digestive issues.

“Many times, people can get very focused or heads-down in the moment and not realize that a base layer of stress is boiling under the surface,” says Dr. Mogen. “Practically, stress and recovery management are important for understanding when to take a rest day or when to step back from a difficult project and reset to improve the overall outcome.” In the short-term, stress-tracking devices equip us with the ability to note when our bodies are edging toward excessive stress and allow us to move toward self-correction right then and there.

Dr. Mogen adds that the brainy wizards behind stress trackers are currently in the early stages of really harnessing that data for long-term positive change. “The future will be focused less on measuring new metrics and focused more on the options for intervening on different scales,” he notes. “For example, at Hapbee, we’re working on one of those new inputs—a way to use really tiny magnetic fields to provide specific mood states with some cutting-edge technology. The future is going to be at the intersection of measuring and acting on the information.”

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The Best Stress Tracking Devices You Can Buy Now

Fitbit Sense, $189+

fitbit sense stress tracking watch

The Fitbit Sense is the brand’s new and advanced smartwatch that tracks the usual metrics, plus oxygen saturation, skin temperature, sleep stages, and, you guessed it, stress levels. When placing your opposite palm over the face of the watch, it uses a multi-path electrical sensor to pick up on the electrodermal activity (EDA) responses in your skin, aka the electrical changes that may signal your body’s response to stress.

It then tracks your responses so you can identify stress triggers, create mindful solutions, and monitor your progress over time. What’s more, you’ll find a daily “Stress Management Score” in the app, which is based on your responsiveness, exertion balance, and sleep patterns, as well as a daily survey to keep track of your emotions.

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Hapbee, $379+

hapbee stress tracking devices

“Hapbee is the first ultra-low radio frequency energy stimulation device built for people to create sensations and feelings on-demand,” says Dr. Rogen. “It’s a totally new way to provide sensations that can help manage mental states.” Unlike other devices, this one’s worn around your forehead and is focused less on tracking physiological data points and more on helping you actually feel good via radio frequencies. It has six primary settings, including calm, sleepy, focus, happy, relax, and alert. Find out more about Hapbee on its website.

Healbe, $199

stress tracking

Worn around your wrist and available in both a faceless and face option, Healbe monitors three primary things: emotions and stress, body hydration, and calorie intake. It estimates stress levels hourly by checking your heart rate and then gives you a numbered reading (0-5) on how stressed you are. The calorie and hydration intake are a nice bonus — and pretty unique. Healbe utilizes the brand’s FLOW technology to automatically track calories digested by your body as well as hydration. It’ll even send you alerts to let you know when to drink up.

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Whoop, $18/month+

stress tracking

For a no-frills, faceless option, Whoop is the way to go. This strap device is worn around your wrist and tracks heart rate, heart rate variability sleep, and recovery. What sets it apart from others is its robust, personalized data tracking. Additionally, it’s membership-based, so you’re paying for the data tracking while the device itself is free (not including the band, which starts at $15).

After four months, Whoop members saw a reduced resting heart rate, increased heart rate variability, high quality sleep, fewer injuries, and even less booze consumed. The faceless feature is particularly nice for those who don’t want to be inundated with yet another smart device sending through text messages, email notifications, and other beeps and buzzes.

Oura Ring, $299

stress tracking

Worn as a ring around your finger, Oura places a strong emphasis on tracking your nighttime movements and overall sleep quality. This is measured via your resting heart rate, heart rate variability, respiratory rate, body temperature, nighttime movement, time spent asleep, and how long you spent in each sleep stage (light, deep, REM). It also tracks your daytime movements, including activity levels, calories, steps taken, naps, and inactive times.

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Simply knowing all the above can help you better understand your body and make important changes that better your overall health. Dr. Mogen says, “Oura is the most technology you’ve seen packed into a sleek ring. It offers great sleep and recovery tracking in a covert package that almost always gets compliments.”

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