How stress trackers can help you stay calm

September 13, 2021 - 19 min read

smiling-woman-wearing-stress-tracker-watch

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What is a stress tracker?

Why do I need to track stress?

The accuracy of a stress monitor

6 best wearables for stress tracking

Stress tracker app to improve your health

Embrace stress management with a stress tracker

Stress is nothing new in our busy lifestyles. Whether it’s work-related stress or strain from our personal relationships, stress is a normal part of life. 

However, chronic stress is becoming a growing problem across much of the globe. The COVID-19 pandemic has put more people around the world under stress, be it from financial struggles or COVID-related PTSD.

One thing is certain: stress is part of modern life. We can avoid some unnecessary stress by making different choices, but most people are still going to encounter stress on a daily basis. Whether it motivates or distracts depends in part on how we manage it.

Luckily, the conversation around mental fitness and stress is growing, and so is awareness of our ability to help ourselves. With this conversation comes improved technology and tools to track and manage our stress. 

A stress tracker is just one example of a tool that can be helpful for someone with struggles with stress. By becoming more aware of what types of situations make us more stressed, we can change our behaviors. These wearables also provide stress detection and coping techniques to mitigate the downside.

Let’s take a look at some stress monitor gadgets. These tools can help you manage your stress and promote personal well-being.

 

What is a stress tracker? 

A stress tracker is a device that monitors physiological stress indicators. 

Most of these devices focus on your heart. They use heart rate monitors to track your beats per minute and give feedback.

Recently, wearables designers have developed other ways to measure heart rate activity. These measurements give more health insights. 

The devices measure metrics like heart rate variability (HRV). This is the measurement of time intervals between your heartbeats. From this, stress trackers identify small fluctuations in your heart’s function.

These fluctuations may link to age, body position, current health status, and even the time of day. They may also have to do with emotional health, mental fitness, and physical health.

Tracking HRV can be a great tool to motivate behavioral change. The measurements can help you become more aware of how your behavior affects your bodily functions and nervous system.

High-quality stress trackers can adjust for age and body position. They alert you to heart rate changes from elevated stress levels.

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Generally speaking, a high HRV is a positive thing in medical circles. Low HRV is often associated with stress. It's also associated with medical conditions like heart disease and hypertension.

It’s important to realize that this measurement alone is not enough to tell you whether you’re stressed or not. That’s why stress trackers take into account a range of different metrics. 

Several indicators paint a more comprehensive picture.

Stress tracker algorithms use pattern recognition, signal processing, programming, and mathematics. This data can still provide useful insight to wearers, usually via a stress tracker app.

It’s important to keep in mind that stress trackers cannot prevent stress simply by wearing them. But the data they provide can help you understand how to respond to stress in a healthier way.

Stress trackers can give you a better understanding of how stress puts strain on your body. And they can show you how that strain could affect your physical and mental health in the future.

 

Why do I need to track stress?

Chronic stress and stress-related ailments are common throughout the world.

In the US, stress causes more than $300 billion in annual costs. These costs are from accidents, medical costs, and insurance fees. Stress at work can also lead to higher employee turnover and lower productivity.

Stress has been proven to lead to illness and chronic disease. It increases your risk of cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes. Stress also alters your body’s endocrine function. It can impair your brain and cellular function.

There is an undeniable link between long-term stress and depression. Our brains respond to any demand with stress. In short-term situations, like during a demanding work project, this is not health-threatening.

However, consistently having high stress levels that are not managed can burden your body. They exponentially increase your chance of having to manage anxiety or depression down the line.

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Unfortunately, stress and depression appear to create a ‘catch-22’ situation for many people. 

Those who are chronically stressed often engage in unhealthy lifestyle behaviors. This includes sleeping less, drinking too much alcohol, and overlooking the connection between nutrition and mental health

These actions can increase systemic inflammation and trigger anxiety. They can also lead to depression, which can cause more unhealthy behaviors.

Stress has immediate, day-to-day symptoms as well. If you’ve been under stress for long enough, you may experience ongoing symptoms like:

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, tracking your stress is an important step to managing your stress levels. 

Along with other wellness trends like mindfulness or a stress diary, a wearable stress monitor can help you pay more attention to your mood, feelings, and stressors. 

 

The accuracy of a stress monitor

Stress is a complex topic. It is difficult to define because it is different for each of us. This makes stress monitoring a difficult task.

So can a stress tracker really track stress accurately?

When it comes to ways to measure stress, stress monitor tracking is only accurate if the technology used gives reliable real-time insights. 

Most stress tracker devices rely on optical heart rate monitors. People have often questioned the accuracy and reliability of these monitors.

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The argument is this. If a heart rate sensor on your wearable device cannot accurately read your heart rate, can you trust it to determine how stressed you are?

Firstbeat is the company that provides heart rate analytics for all of Garmin’s stress-tracking features. Their stress management analysis has undergone consistent evaluation and improvement. It’s used in hundreds of thousands of its Lifestyle Assessments. 

However, it’s important to note that these assessments need devices to be worn above the heart on the chest. They need to measure HRV 24 hours a day in order to be precise.

Valencell is a US-based biometrics agency that provides optical heart rate sensors. They make sensors for some of the industry’s largest wearable manufacturers, such as Suunto, Jabre, and Bose.

Valencell notes that it can be challenging to determine HRV from the wrist if the wearer’s wrist moves too much. Their technology works best when its wearers are not moving at all.

Heart rate trackers worn close to the chest as opposed to on the ear or wrist tend to provide more accurate data.

Stress trackers could be more accurate with other stress-related data from the body. One avenue under exploration is sweat and the hormones it contains. This could offer insights into states of emotional stress and exhaustion.

 

6 wearables to consider for stress tracking

Everyone wants to know the best wearables for stress tracking. But the offerings are changing day by day. There are different types of stress trackers and technology to consider depending on what your goals are. Depending on whether you want something subtle to wear constantly or something more accurate (but maybe not low-key), you can choose from everything from smartwatches to brain-sensing headbands. Prices for most options start between $250-$300 all the way up to $1200 on the higher end. Some require additional subscriptions or work better with additional apps.

Here are some of the top picks of wearable stress trackers on the market today:

1. Muse Brain Sensing Headband

This lightweight device uses EEG sensors to measure a wearer’s brain activity. It connects to an app loaded with guided meditations and breathing exercises. 

This high-tech solution can detect high stress levels and chart brain activity. It then categorizes it into groups such as Active, Neutral, and Calm.

The sleek design makes it suitable for people of all ages and levels of activity. This includes children, who can benefit from its meditation-promoting design. 

However, some wearers say the device only works effectively when it fits very tightly around the forehead. Others have observed that minor head movements can impact the tracker’s functionality.

2. Bellabeat Leaf Urban Stress Tracker

The Bellabeat Leaf Urban wearable stress tracker offers a practical and attractive design. It will appeal to environmentally conscious consumers and style-forward wearers alike.

The device offers a range of basic but informative stress-tracking metrics. With time, it can store a variety of users’ health and well-being data in a single, custom-designed app. 

The device is stylish, light, and comfortable. Plus, it’s water-resistant and boasts stress, period, and breathing tracking capabilities.

But, it lacks auto-sync features and only offers basic tracking functions. This makes the Bellabeat Leaf Urban tracker better suited to beginner users.

man-using-stress-tracker-app-apple-watch

3. Apple Watch Series 6

The Apple Watch series is already renowned for its health and wellness features. The Series 6 adds to these capabilities with a range of stress and sleep-tracking functions

The Apple Watch 6 boasts features that can detect stress. On detection, it can suggest measures whenever a wearer experiences high levels of stress. 

It can measure your blood oxygen or take an ECG at any time. It also offers improved battery life, improved water resistance, and a sleep tracking app. 

Some users might find the Apple Watch uncomfortable to wear while asleep. This could limit its night-time stress tracking capabilities.

4. Spire Stone Stress Tracker

The Spire Stone stress tracker is a sleek and portable option. You can clip it to the front of your waistband or the inside of your shirt for maximum comfort. 

It tracks your breathing 24/7 via the expansion of your torso and chest. It sends alerts to your smartphone when your breathing rate elevates. It also monitors your steps and calories.

The Spire Stone does not have a screen. You need a smartphone or tablet to be able to access its stress tracker app and its insights. 

The app provides a handy timeline that shows you exactly when you felt stressed, calm and focused. It allows you to set daily goals and provides guided instructions on how to reach them.

Just remember to keep your phone charged and on you in order to access Spire’s insights.

5. Versus Headset

The high-tech Versus Headset focuses on mobile brain sensing and assessment through its five EEG sensors. The easy-to-use mobile system connects to a dedicated stress tracker app. 

The app will begin by assessing your specific mental strengths and weaknesses. It will then steer you through a series of games using your brainwaves. These games have been designed to address specific focus or stress needs. 

The innovative NeuroPerformance Assessment (NPA) system assesses each user’s brain performance. It develops personalized exercise recommendations. This creates a benchmark to improve concentration, focus, and mental acuity.

However, this is not a subtle device that you can wear to a work meeting without attracting attention from your peers.

6. Garmin Vivoactive 3

The Garmin Vivoactive 3 is one of Garmin’s most popular GPS smartwatches. This is especially true when it comes to stress tracking. 

The device can analyze your HRV during periods of inactivity to address your stress levels. It can keep track of your physical activity and training, sleep patterns, nutrition, and general life stresses. This kind of data helps you to improve your lifestyle and reduce stress.

The Vivoactive 3 indexes your stress levels on a scale of 0–100. 0–25 is a resting state, 26–50 is low stress, 51–75 is medium stress, and 76–100 is high stress. Knowing your stress score will empower you to identify stressful moments throughout the day. 

Your device can sync with your Garmin Connect account to view your stress levels, long-term trends, and other helpful metrics. 

The designers recommend that you wear the device while sleeping. The downside of this device is that some people may not be comfortable wearing a smart stress watch while sleeping.

 

Stress tracker app to improve your health

One of the biggest benefits of using a stress tracker app is that you can use it as a stress diary. Keeping a record of the events that cause stress has many benefits. 

Let’s take a look at three of them:

1. Identify stress-inducing factors

You can use your stress tracker app to pinpoint the biggest stressors in your life. Make a note of the time, place, who you were with, and how you felt in the moment. Some apps also let you record stress intensity. 

This will help you learn what things in life cause you the most stress and which coping mechanisms best suit particular situations. 

2. Set goals for improvement 

Use your stress diary to set goals on how to better handle your stress. The best goals are SMART — specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. 

Include an action plan to achieve your goals. For example, make a list of stress management techniques that work for you. Your stress tracker app should also provide tips for stress relief.

Setting personal goals creates a structure that helps you to visualize your success and mitigate stress. Use these goals to make a five-year plan to turn your long-term dreams into a reality.

3. Gain better personal insight

Using a stress diary gives you more self-awareness. By keeping track of your stress triggers, you can fully explore your emotions and thoughts.

Self-awareness comes with its own benefits, including better decision-making and a greater ability to self-manage and regulate your emotions.

woman-touching-the-top-of-her-head-stress-tracker

 

Embrace stress management with a stress tracker

Today, there are many ways to measure stress. Stress trackers are not a magic bullet solution for stress management. But they can provide useful insights into what causes daily stress and how it affects our bodies.

Plus, they help you form better habits and decisions for your physical and mental well-being. The more aware you are of your emotional and mental states, the better equipped you are to work with your stress and other reactions productively.

Using coaching and other holistic tools through BetterUp can provide more guidance, not just on managing stress but feeling your best and unlocking more of your potential. Breaking the hold stress has on your life is just one part of the equation.

Published September 13, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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