We have gadgets to monitor steps, calories and sleep – but should you actually be tracking your stress levels?

IT’s the body’s reaction to a threat or mounting pressure, and given the past year, it’ll come as no surprise that 56% of Brits say their stress levels have soared.

Be it WFH, homeschooling, Covid itself, being furloughed or lockdown relationship woes, no one has been immune to the toll of the pandemic.

But help could be at hand. We’re all used to counting our steps, keeping an eye on our sleep patterns and watching the calories we eat thanks to apps and smartwatches.

And now we can add stress trackers to our wellbeing arsenal. But what are they, and can they really help?

Under pressure

Stress is a common part of everyday life, and can actually help motivate us to achieve more.

But too much stress can be dangerous.

It can affect your mood and relationships, and leave you feeling anxious and irritable.

Drag those feelings out over a long period of time – say during the Covid pandemic – and it can leave you on the brink of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion, commonly known as burnout.

“Reasonable day-to-day stress is normal,” says clinical psychologist Dr Galyna Selezneva.

“It’s when stress becomes overwhelming and gets in the way of daily life that it negatively impacts our emotional and physical wellbeing.”

 As well as headaches, insomnia, low energy and muscle aches, stress can even reduce our ability to fight off viruses and bugs by weakening the immune system. Not ideal during a pandemic.

Dr Galyna adds: “If left untreated, stress can cause long-term effects on physical and mental wellbeing.

“This could be chronic pain, digestive issues, high blood pressure, the body’s ability to absorb nutrients and, of course, your reproductive health, such as a low sex drive, impotence and even infertility.

“And let us not forget that the greatest impact is on our mental health and emotional wellness – ranging from mild symptoms such as feeling unmotivated to full-blown depression and anxiety disorders.” 

How can you tell if you’re on the brink of burnout?

If you’re regularly saying yes to more than one of these statements on the NHS checklist, your stress levels might be veering into the danger zone. You:

  • Feel overwhelmed 
  • Are plagued by racing thoughts 
  • Find it difficult to concentrate 
  • Find you’re easily irritated 
  • Feel constantly worried, anxious or scared 
  • Are lacking self-confidence 
  • Struggle to sleep or feel tired all the time 
  • Avoid things or people that you’re finding difficult 
  • Eat more or less than normal 
  • Are smoking or drinking alcohol more than usual 

Stress busters

While knowing the signs can be useful, the problem with stress is that it can creep up when you least expect it.

And that’s where tech can help – picking up on the subtle changes to your body that can signal early alarm bells.

Dr Galyna says: “No matter how aware we are of the signs of stress, we might be disconnected from our own bodies.

“So it can be a bonus to be told to slow down and be educated about what is happening to us.” 

Apple’s Watch Series 6 detects the onset of panic attacks, and will remind you to do calming breathing exercises thanks to its built-in blood oxygen monitor.

Meanwhile, Fitbit’s Sense monitor is the first to track stress via electrodermal activity – sensors that pick up sweat triggered by stress. 

While telling you that you’re stressed is one thing, helping you combat it is something else altogether.

Cove recently launched a new headpiece that tracks your heart rate and silently vibrates behind the ears to soothe the wearer and promote better sleep.

Meanwhile, Muse’s headset plays weather sounds, from pouring rain to a drizzle, if it senses you’re stressed  or distracted, to guide you back to a calmer state. 

Tried and tested

Jessica says: “Wearable tech can look bulky, but the slimline Garmin Lily (£179.99) smartwatch changes all that.

“It offers a host of helpful health and fitness features, but it was the stress tracking element that sold it to me.

"While I’m generally well aware when I’m stressed (as is everyone around me), I found it helpful having something to pull my focus away from what was causing it.

“The Lily suggests breathing exercises, telling me to ‘relax, breathe’.

“Before I know it, I’m doing just that and my shoulders drop and everything seems more manageable.

“The trackers use heart rate monitoring from my wrist to figure out how much energy I have, to give an idea of my stress levels.

“While it could mistake excitement for stress, after a week it started to give me a good idea of how stressed I was – which was more than I realised, especially when I looked at the heart rate graph that definitely showed more peaks than troughs.

“The good news is, now I’m hyper-aware of my stress levels, I can act on it.

“The watch won’t stop the cause of my stress, but it means I’m more likely to do my breathing exercises, and as a result I’ve already noticed a difference.” 

The Best stress trackers

  • Garmin Vivoactive 4, £229.99: Relax reminders will prompt you to do a short breathing activity when you’re feeling stressed.
  • Samsung Galaxy Watch Active, £199: Samsung has teamed up with mindfulness meditation app Calm to combat stress with meditation sessions direct from your wrist.
  • Apple Watch Series 6, from £379: The new Apple model offers sleep tracking, automatic hand washing detection and reminders every five hours to take time out to work on your breathing.
  • Fitbit Sense, £299: Track everything from stress to blood oxygen levels, temperature and sleep with Fitbit’s electrocardiogram device, which has even been approved by the US government’s health department. 
  • Muse 2, £208: Alleviate stress and make meditation an accessible solution thanks to Muse’s real-time brain feedback and guided audio. 

5 ways to stress less

So what happens if your wearable starts ringing stressful alarm bells? Dr Jo Mennie shares her top tips for achieving calmer days.

Breathe: In stressful moments, focus on your breathing – inhale for four counts and exhale for eight to regulate your fight or flight response. 

Plan: A daily planner that you complete the night before can help you identify potential stressful elements of the next day. Just don’t overload your to-do list. 

Get outside: Exposure to sunlight can reduce stress levels, increase productivity and improve your sleep as your body produces more of the hormone melatonin.

Boost antioxidants:  A diet high in antioxidant-rich fruit and veg can help reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Move: Regular exercise reduces the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin, and stimulates the release of feel-good endorphins.

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