Sergio Ruzzier for The Wall Street Journal
IT WAS A COOL 68 DEGREES in the car, yet my forehead was beading with sweat. I-405 was a slow-rolling conveyor belt of anxiety. My palms were hot. My mind raced. Was that BMW really going to cut me off again?
But I had a solution. I pulled over at the next exit and did what any nerd-in-the-know would do: I plugged a stress-management device into my iPhone, fired up a relaxation guide and let go.
With finger on sensor, I inhaled and exhaled while following a bouncing ball on the screen, “breathing from the heart,” as the instructions told me. Within 60 seconds, I felt calm and collected, ready to face the 33 miles of stop-and-go ahead. I slipped back into traffic, a monk. I was home before I knew it.
Normally, I find technology to be a source of stress: social networks make me feel like I have no life; my blood boils over the emails I read before bedtime; hours spent staring at a screen have turned my lower back into a tight band of doom. Sure, I turn to other outlets to release stress—exercise, meditation, single-malt scotch—but like an email newsletter from a travel site, it just keeps coming back. But what if the very gadgets causing my angst could be used to combat the stress they create? A handful of devices promise to do just that. They quantify your stress level by calculating your heart rate and the minute variations in the time between each beat, a measurement known as heart rate variability (HRV), which has been used to gauge the likelihood of mortality after a heart attack and to help assess certain psychiatric conditions. If the gadgets find that you should unwind, they’ll attempt to guide you to a more centered state through relaxation exercises. Some use simple animations that you follow with deep breaths. Others offer video with experts like Andrew Weil and Thich Nhat Hanh, who lead you through a short meditation or even a series of yoga poses. Gadgets that can lower my stress and teach me to calm down? I was in. Was it all too good to be true, though? Some of the language I read reeked of snake oil, and the devices and apps often assessed my stress level inconsistently. One might tell me I was calm, while another advised me that I needed to cool down, so take their readings with a grain of salt if you choose to hop on board. But if you’re like me, you just might come out the other side more mellow, with your gadgets looking less like stressors and more like digital therapists.
The emWave2 is the most complex of the devices that I looked at, but it was also the most accurate. It consists of a heart-rate sensor that clips onto your earlobe and an iPod-size device that can send your data to a Mac or Windows computer via USB. (The emWave2 also has an onboard thumb sensor that wasn’t nearly as accurate.) While you can use the emWave 2 without a computer, I found the PC-based experience to be more immersive.
Before I could begin using the emWave2, I had to install it—a procedure that was, ironically, pretty stressful. It required loading software and drivers from a CD-ROM (remember those?) and then restarting my computer, which modern software rarely does. Thirty minutes and two computer crashes later, the emWave2 was up and running. There I sat with the device pulsing blue light, a pile of documentation strewed about my desk, a wire hanging from my ear. My wife peeked in at me from the office door, eyebrow raised.
I fired up the emWave2 software, the device calibrated and I saw a graph of my HRV being drawn on my computer screen in real time. I was fascinated. And according to the device, I needed to chill. I ran a coaching program intended to help me build my “coherence”—focusing on my heart, breathing from my center, “activating” a positive feeling. I breathed in as a little ball on the screen floated up, out as it descended, and gazed upon images of serene mountain brooks. Although I was skeptical at first, I genuinely felt better by the end of it all.
If only the software could be brought up to date, I could see legions of strung-out geeks like me becoming addicted servants of this device. Wasn’t there a “Star Trek” episode about this? $229, heartmathstore.com F. Martin Ramin for The Wall Street Journal Zensorium Tinké Zensorium TinkéThe Tinké is a cute dongle that measures HRV, blood oxygen level and respiratory rate with a built-in thumb sensor. It connects to an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch’s 30-pin connector (using the Tinké with newer Lightning-equipped iOS devices requires an adapter); an accompanying app processes your stats. From a design standpoint, the Tinké was the clear stand out: pretty, colorful and simple.
The Tinké was also easy to use. I plugged the device into the iPhone, downloaded the app, ran a quick calibration and was measuring my stress levels in minutes. The Tinké was especially convenient to use on the go, which is exactly when I needed it most, whether dealing with Los Angeles traffic or coming down after a gym session. Its portability is easily its best feature.
That said, the app’s interface is cramped, and it offers only one relaxation exercise, in which you follow expanding and contracting circles with your breath. Although it’s effective, the breadth of exercises offered by the other devices left me wishing for more here. The Tinké’s thumb sensor could be temperamental, too. To take an accurate reading, it requires that you exert constant, consistent pressure. I often found myself more concerned with holding the device properly than getting my breathing in line.
Because of this, I had a hard time trusting the unit. My “Vita” score—a measure of cardiorespiratory fitness compiled by assessing my blood-oxygen saturation levels and heart and respiratory rates—was constantly high and healthy. My “Zen Index,” on the other hand, never rose above 34, indicating that, despite my heart health, I was constantly stressed out. Even after doing multiple relaxation exercises and verifying my improved HRV with the emWave2, the Tinké’s reading didn’t budge past 34. Perhaps it was waiting for me to pass out from all the deep-breathing exercises it led me through.
Apart from its wonky readings on the Zen side, the Tinké’s simplicity provided me with the shortest route to relaxation. I found myself returning to the unit more than any other because it was so easy to take along. Carrying it in my pocket was a constant reminder to relax. $119, zensorium.com F. Martin Ramin for The Wall Street Journal (phone)
GPS for the Soul GPS for the SoulThis recently launched Huffington Post app for the iPhone 4, 4S and 5 uses HRV-sensing technology developed by HeartMath, the same company behind the emWave2. It requires no additional hardware; the app measures HRV with the iPhone’s camera and flash. It also has a stress-reducing price: free. I found the emWave2 and its earpiece to be the most accurate, the Tinké’s dongle less so. It was no surprise, then, that this sensorless app was the flakiest of all. Getting accurate readings with the app required placing my index finger gingerly over my iPhone’s camera lens and flash for 80 seconds. If I moved too much, the app would suggest that I rub my fingers together and start again. A few rounds of this was enough to elevate my stress level. But do you really need an app to tell you that you’re strung out? If not, GPS for the Soul truly shines. It features dozens of stress-relieving guides from various experts and wellness companies: A video with the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches you how to move mindfully; instructors from the Kripalu yoga center demonstrate the cat/cow pose; Dr. Andrew Weil leads you through a simple breathing exercise. I also appreciated that I could have the app remind me to “check-in.” I normally find it annoying when apps do this, but it was helpful to be reminded to de-stress in the middle of hectic days. Free, huffingtonpost.com/gps-for-the-soul/ Explore More Keeping Fit, One Step at a Time
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A version of this article appeared January 5, 2013, on page D11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: KeepCalmandCarryaGizmo.
- Posted using from my iPad HD