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Is Tracking Stress The New Tracking Steps?

What to know before choosing an app or device to help monitor your stress levels.

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Greg Reid (Prop Stylist: Megumi Emoto)
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Women have fallen in love with health metrics. First, we tracked our steps and tried hitting 10,000 daily for fitness. Then, realizing that good sleep is essential for our well-being, we monitored our sleep and bought devices and smart beds to tell us how much restful sleep we get each night.

Now we’re focusing on stress. While we‘ve been talking about and trying to manage stress for decades, today‘s technology allows us to not only measure our stress (in a sense) but it also helps determine what causes it, and once we know that, how to help lower it to improve our health and wellness. So tracking stress may be the new tracking steps.

Why stress matters

Decades of research show us that stress can have a profoundly negative impact on both our mental and physical health — affecting everything from our organs to our brain function, gut and mood — so we must take steps to reduce it. Once you track your stress and determine its cause, you’ll need to learn how to head it off at the pass. Otherwise, what’s the point of tracking it? Fortunately, plenty of apps and devices are available to help us accomplish this.

“It’s important to remember that stress isn’t actually a specifically measurable thing within your body. It can be approximated, mostly with heart rate monitors, but that doesn’t always tell the whole story,” says Caroline Grainger, a personal trainer certified by the International Sports Sciences Association at “Fitness trackers combined with methods of managing stress, including therapy, medication and adaptive techniques in the moment, can help you identify moments when you’re more successfully managing the stressors in your life.” And the less stress you have, the better for your physical and mental well-being.

How to track your stress

Some of the wearable devices in the stress-tracking space are Whoop, Garmin, Apple Watch, Samsung Health, Oura and Fitbit. Apps include MyLifeLine and Stress Check (iOS) and SWORD Health (iOS and Android).

“Most stress-tracking apps and devices use sensors to measure physiological changes in the body, such as heart rate variability (HRV), skin conductance and breathing rate,” says Zeeshan Afzal, M.D., medical officer at, an online telehealth platform in the U.K.

Heart rate variability analysis is one popular method for measuring stress. It involves measuring the time difference between consecutive heartbeats. In essence, it examines how fast your heart beats and how the time between heartbeats changes. This can show how adaptable your body is to stress. For example, people with high HRV are typically less stressed.

In addition, adrenaline and cortisol — two hormones linked to stress — are produced when you’re stressed to provide you with enough energy to deal with the stressor. It’s part of the fight-or-flight response, and it’s why you may feel agitated or anxious when you experience stress. Grainger says that some of these devices and apps also track your heart rate and compare it to your physical activity level using accelerometers. “In most cases, an elevated heart rate in the absence of exercise is a sign of stress,” she says.

Plus, some newer models like the Apple Watch series 6 and the Samsung Active2 Galaxy Watch and Sleep Tracker, which has built-in integration with the Calm app, also use blood oxygen monitoring to sense quick and shallow breathing. Breathing can further indicate stress, anxiety or even a panic attack. These measurements, once taken, are then used to calculate your stress score or stress level. Tracking your stress levels can help you become more aware of how stress affects your body and mind and may help you identify the triggers that lead to stress. The awareness alone can help you make positive changes to reduce stress.

Remember, however, that day-to-day periods of elevated stress are normal — what you should be monitoring and looking to reduce are consistently high levels of stress, which can start to erode your health over time and have been linked to more damaging long-term health outcomes, cautions Dan Gallagher, an ISSA-certified nutritionist at Aegle Nutrition, a U.S.-based nutrition supplement company.

“If you notice consistently high levels of stress, it’s important first to identify where it’s coming from,” Gallagher says. Ultimately, it’s more effective to treat the cause of the stress. But in the meantime, he says, focusing on regular exercise, good sleep, and eating well can help bring stress levels down overall.

Choosing an app or device

When choosing an app or device to help monitor your stress levels, look out for a few factors.

The first is accuracy — it’s important to research reviews and see what other users have been saying about the app or device’s accuracy before making your choice. You’ll also want to ensure the app or device has a user-friendly interface that lets you easily view and understand your data. Finally, make sure that the app or device you choose synchronizes with any health-tracking applications you already use, such as Apple Health.

Some wearables, like the Whoop strap, also include journaling elements that can help you identify hidden dietary and lifestyle factors that may strain your body unnecessarily. “For example, you may discover that alcohol interferes with sleep and [exercise] recovery, or that on days you take a cold shower or supplement with magnesium, your recovery is better the next day,” says Christine MacCarroll, a board-certified functional nutritionist at TapRoot Nutrition in Denver. Over time, learning your particular challenges and how to relieve them can make it easier to balance stress.

Reducing your stress

When your stress levels are high, first consider what’s generating them. Is it purely mental stress? Are you getting enough sleep? Are there underlying physiological issues like too little or too much exercise, too little or too much food or alcohol. Or is it related to blood sugar or another metabolic imbalance?

“Considering the context of your stress can help you decide if the right intervention is taking a break from the gym, going to the gym, heading out for a walk, adjusting your diet, talking to a coach or therapist, or downloading a meditation app,” MacCarroll says.

Identifying the source(s) of stress in your life and evaluating whether these sources can be minimized or eliminated entirely is essential. This could involve making lifestyle changes such as reducing work hours, changing jobs, removing difficult relationships, or spending more time with friends and family and enjoying hobbies.

Tips for reducing stress

Try to make subtle adjustments that can help overall. Try these:

· Work out regularly. Exercise alleviates stress, but you must do it regularly to effectively reduce stress.

· Take more frequent breaks from work to stretch, move and walk.

· Make time for self-care, like a massage, a foot rub or a hot bath.

· Concentrate on regularly getting a good night’s sleep.

· Practice slow, deep breathing, in and out, for 5 to 10 minutes when you feel stressed.

· Take up a mindfulness or meditation practice, even for just five minutes a day.

· Skip excessive alcohol.

· Eat more leafy greens.

· Stay hydrated.

· Concentrate on better work-life balance.

By tracking stress levels with a device or app and taking appropriate steps when your stress is high, you can significantly improve your mental and physical health. With the right app or device and some dedication, you can become more aware of stress and its triggers — and live a more balanced life.

When you feel stressed, what do you do? Let us know in the comments below.

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