PART 2: Chronic stress – The brain concludes that we are continuously in danger

The autonomous nervous system regulates the body functions as situations require. Recovery and healing systems are most active during sleep.  After lunch it is important to digest the food and use the nutrients efficiently. When facing imminent threat, the immune system and food processing are not important. They are shut off, to use all the possible energy for muscles that are needed in the fight.

The autonomous nervous system works largely unconsciously. It is responsible for many vital functions such as blood pressure and temperature regulation, digestion and function of the adrenal cortex.  It works through the neural network that controls the heart and other organs. The autonomous nervous system keeps us alive without us knowingly doing anything about it.

The autonomous nervous system consists of two complementary parts, the sympathetic and parasympathetic.  When active, the parasympathetic nervous system slows down the heart beat, enhances digestion and healing. It strives to calm the body down and keep the vital functions stable.

The sympathetic part is responsible for preparing the body for action, and it´s fibers can innervate tissues in almost every organ.  The sympathetic nervous system activates in stressful situations and in hard physical strain.

The both parts of the autonomous nervous systems normally work in good cooperation, but as a seesaw.  When the other gets active, the other slows down. For instance in acute stress reaction the sympathetic nervous system works in full speed in an instant. The working of the parasympathetic part seizes and e.g. digestion almost stops. A perfect operation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic part enable an accurate and fast regulation of our internal mechanisms in any situation.

The fight or flight response is a way for us to cope in a rapidly escalating threatening situation. At the time of cavemen the case was normally quickly closed, the fights did not last for weeks or months. For a today´s human the stress reaction might be a permanent state, and the parasympathetic nervous system does not have the chance to return our body to rest.

In long term stress the cortisol levels in our body are continuously high

Chronic stress keeps the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis active. It is like an idling motor, pumping stress hormones such as cortisol to our system.

Cortisol helps us to confront the threat but it simultaneously shuts down the immune system. From the evolution point of view this made sense: if a crocodile attacks we can shut down all the functions in the body that are not needed to flee or fight. The immune defense weakens when we are continuously stressed, and this might lead to a series of infections. The stress factors also play a role in the development of autoimmune diseases, heart and blood vessel diseases and cancer. Continuous boosts of adrenaline can harm blood vessels, raise blood pressure and increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Worrying and fear increase our mental load and can further activate the sympathetic nervous system. Physical symptoms persist,  recovery via rest and sleep further slow down.

Heavy cognitive and emotional load during recovery from an illness might be as bad for our body as physical exercise. Our body would choose to put the work aside when being ill.

Chronic Stress affects memory, concentration and appetite

In a state of chronic stress the brain thinks that a physical fight starts any time. With cortisol our body works to have a lot of energy available. It enhances appetite and extra energy storing  with might lead to weight gain.

Cortisol is also released to hippocampus that is central in memorizing and learning. A stressed out person has difficulties in learning and emotion regulation. There are often concentration difficulties and memory problems.

Burnout

Chronic stress can not go on forever without consequences. Burnout is a severe disturbance in our vital mechanisms. Simultaneous psychological, neural, metabolic and immune system collapse might be so total, that a complete recovery is very slow or even impossible.

The best cure for burnout is prevention. It can be difficult to understand the graveness of the situation. People tend to compare themselves and their working rhythms to others and to pretend that everything is fine. Just a moment before collapsing things might seem normal from the outside.

Talk with friends and family, colleagues, your superior or a health care professional if you feel  that the load is too high.

Sleep is a good indicator.

Sleep, brain and stress

When the life is in balance, we recover from acute stress reactions and also longer burdensome periods. These take often place in life changes: a newcomer in the family, moving house, study or work project that is exceptionally demanding. We overcome these challenges when the amount of recovery is sufficient.

Sleep is our most important recovery function and an indicator of balance. Weeks and months with disturbed sleep is a sign of stress, and sleep deprivation further lowers down our resilience.

The brain needs sleep. During sleep many things take place that the sleeper is not aware of. A daily cleanup is made in order for us to feel physically and mentally well.

There is no health without sleep. The importance of proper recovery becomes clear after a period of poor sleeping. At worst the life is just coping. Unfortunately this is reality for so many, that we have begun to think it is normal not to sleep enough. But it is not.

When we most nights sleep well and feel brisk in the morning, our body and mind are always prepared to perform well. We are in balance.

The complete set of 5 articles:

  1. Part 1: Fight or flight response
  2. Part 2: Chronic stress – The brain concludes that we are continuously in danger
  3. Part 3: Tools for long term and continuous stress measurement
  4. Part 4: The Moodmetric ring stress measurement and understanding the data
  5. Part 5: The Moodmetric measurement in preventive occupational health 

 

Electrodermal activity measurement shows athletes new information

Different kinds of physiological measurement systems have been used for a long time in top sports. Wearable devices have made exercise tracking easy for everyone.

Heart rate monitoring is the most used measurement in sports. It was developed by an Australian physician Robert Treffene for swim exercising. In Finland hear rate monitor was invented by the Polar Electro founder, professor Seppo Säynäjäkangas in 1975.

Today there is a huge variety of equipment for hear rate monitoring. The most accurate ones still measure from chest, either with a band or with taped sensors. Wrist worn trackers are comfortable to wear and they have largely displaced chest bands especially with non-professional exercisers. The accuracy of wrist worn trackers has been improved in past years, but it suffers especially at high heart rates.

Heart rate, heart rate variability (HRV) and electrodermal activity (EDA)

Analysing heart rate gives a good view of physical strain. With different algorithms it is possible to understands also recovery, sleep and stress.

Heart rate variability (HRV) has been lately brought up especially in measuring non-physical load. There are challenges, as at high heart rates the algorithms struggle to understand what happens: is the person physically at rest, but nervous (e.g. about a soon-to-start exam), or is it now about physical exercise? Here the accelerometers, present in all of the trackers, are of help. These components can detect whether a person is moving or is at rest, and much more about movement directions and pace.

The electrodermal activity (EDA) measurement brings interesting new information to analyse performance of an athlete. This does not tell about heart, but about sympathetic nervous system activation through sweat gland reactions of skin. Skin is the only organ that is purely innervated by the sympathetic nervous system. The EDA measurement is very sensitive to emotional and cognitive stress, and it has been used in psychological research already for over 100 years. Only lately it has become available for consumers.

The Moodmetric smart ring measures electrodermal activity. The ring is comfortable to wear and it is thus well suited for continuous, long term measurement. Only a sufficiently long measurement period gives a full picture on stress, how it is generated and how recovery happens during weeks, months and even years.

Both top sports, and going after personal goals in exercising benefit of stress load related information. It is good to understand what sources of stress or recovery might affect the performance. For instance, cognitive load of a professional athlete might be less than for someone who need to have a day job to finance the sports career. The professional athlete can probably exercise more, as there is more time for recovery. The results and performance are affected by emotional and cognitive load, if there is no time to unwind.

Read more: Moodmetric-measurement in research

Moodmetric will participate SMASH-sports event in Helsinki the 28-29th November, come to meet us and test the smart ring!

Contact:
Niina Venho
[email protected]
+358 40 710 4087

Moodmetric app now with Diary and more

The Moodmetric ring and app support stress management with the aid of health tech. The app is a simple and visual tool that helps the user to understand and react to stressful things in life.

The new Moodmetric App has now been released for both iPhone and Android users. The app works with current and new ring versions.

The new app gives more tools for stress management

The familiar features of the previous Moodmetric app are still there. The real-time view supports live follow-up on stress levels, and the much appreciated Daily diagram is as before.

The new app supports stress management even better with both more possibilities for user input and automatized analytics. Defining actions and categorizing events show clearly what are the stressors in life, and what brings energy.

Stress/Mood scatter plot

The most impactful new feature is the Stress/Mood scatter plot, that now combines the experienced mood in addition to the stress measurement data provided by the Moodmetric ring.

The Moodmetric level 0-100 is the vertical axis of the scatter plow. The same Moodmetric level is familiar from the previous app version, it is developed for simple reading of the measurement results. The higher the stress level, the higher the vertical position of the life category circles.

The self perceived mood is the horizontal axis. The more use the has noted an event to be of a positive mood, to more to the right it takes the life category circle.

Diary

The scatter plot is based on Diary which is automatically updated with the Moodmetric stress level information. The user can download the phone calendar events to Diary and add notes.

It is possible to add notes to events, choose a category and indicate happy, neutral or bad mood.

 

App development is team work

Planning and development of the new features have  been started at Moodmetric already in spring 2017. We would like to give special thanks to Eero Jaakonaho for the work on perfecting the user experience from the visual perspective.

Both the iOS and Android mobile app new features have been developed at Gofore, in close cooperation with Moodmetric. The end user was kept in mind throughout the project, for example the developers had the possibility to wear the Moodmetric ring. Flexible communication enabled a smooth progress, and the app release was made as planned well before the new ring version deliveries.

Download the new Moodmetric app from AppStore or GooglePlay. If you have an old version with data in, you will not loose it.

If a part of my life is too stressful, should I do something about it?

“I am so stressed”. You hear this often and you probably say that often. Many times we not stop to reflect, why and for what reasons we are so stressed.

When asked to specify, the list is long: the work, the boss, the colleagues, the partner, kids etc. How stressful each of them are is more difficult to point out. After some years of a very hectic life everything becomes a big clump of worry and pressing thoughts.

With the Moodmetric measurement it is easy to pinpoint what factors in life are the most stressful. The stress level is also given on a scale from 0 to 100. Each day and night is presented with an easily readable chart that shows with red and purple color on a clock face when the stress is the highest.

For myself, there is no doubt of the biggest stress factor in my life: my kids, that I love dearly. Leaving in the morning with the usual mess of lost things, being late etc. is easily the worst part of the day. The next and longer one is putting the kids to sleep. I am lucky not to get overly stressed of the work nor most people near me. This is both my personal feeling and what the Moodmetric data tells me.

One big stress factor in life is usually manageable, especially if one sleeps well. Sleep deprivation makes all the negative things look worse and if one feels burdened, that should be the first thing to correct.

For some of our users the Moodmetric measurement shows clearly that the work is the biggest stressor in life. Running the whole workday on a very high alertness level means cumulating stress weeks and months. Combined with small children and for example an elderly parent to look after, the life can get very complicated. Big changes in life cannot be done over night and of course some things we want to keep regardless of how many grey hairs we get.

The Moodmetric ring and combined app are the simplest tool to manage stress using real time physiological data. The wearer can begin to look at the life as whole and choose one stressor at the time to work with. The measurement shows stress and recovery levels also at sleep and while exercising.

Click here for more information on what the Moodmetric ring measures and what the data tells you.

 

Picture: Pixabay

Should I have a change of scenery

– My work environment is loud and distracting, I can not concentrate.
– How bad is it on a scale from 1 to 10?
– Nine.
– Let´s get back to this when it is 10.

Sounds familiar? It is difficult to measure or quantify how the work environment affects motivation, creativity and wellbeing at work. How poor should things get before anyone takes action? On an individual level, getting ill might bring short term help. But doctors can do little beyond prescribing medication, sick leave or therapy.

The superior and company management are better set to take concrete steps to improve the work environment. There are atmosphere and wellbeing surveys, and strategy, vision and brainstorming sessions on how to remove obstacles from productive work. List of potential measures is boundless, from green walls to complete restructuring of the physical workplace and possibly also the organization and work itself.

Can you measure how you are doing at work?

Surveys are the most common way to measure emotional and cognitive load. Interviews, questionnaires and pushing smiley buttons are informative, but focus on a specific moment. Accuracy gets better when repeating surveys often, but subjective comment is always limited. It is affected by many things beside the question asked. A person might give a positive answer just because of being on a good mood or wanting to please the reader. A comment might turn negative, not because of the new tech at the meeting room, but because of being envious about the new car of a colleague.

Physiological measurement devices tell about stress and mental load, but different devices are not all fitting well to measure the knowledge worker´s life. Studying the brain activity would require a laboratory setting and thus be very far from the office. Heart rate measurement in various ways best tell about physical load, and with good algorithms also about recovery. The activity trackers do not describe mental load.

The Moodmetric smart ring is well suited to measure emotional and cognitive load. It measures electrodermal activity that is a phenomenon known in psychological research for over hundred years. The measurement results are available real time on a smartphone screen making it possible to follow own reactions in different places and situations.

A day of a knowledge worker consists of meetings, writing, jamming technology, idea creation, solving problems alone and in a group and challenges requiring fast actions. The Moodmetric measurement gives a stress level reading of 0–100 that is comparable between wearers. The data points out what creates the biggest mental workload. High numbers indicate stress or excitement, low numbers tell about winding down.

The measurement data is stored and can be easily shown to an occupational health specialist or worklife coach. It can for example be demonstrated that the Moodmetric level for an oversensitive person working in an open office is constantly at 100. This indicates extreme cognitive load which might have severe consequences when going on for a long time. If people are physically, mentally or emotionally uncomfortable in the office, they are unlikely to be successful or satisfied with their jobs. The employer understanding the importance of workplace wellbeing could in this example react on time and provide the person with a better suited place for work.

People are happier and more productive when they work in an environment that suits them. The issue is how to understand when the person is in an optimal space. Objective measurements should be taken to use by the side of the subjective ones. People need to be given enough power to affect their own work. Office moves and all the related changes must be managed effectively. Remember that all kinds of spaces are not ideal for everyone and leave room for individual solutions after the transition phase.

Moodmetric is involved in several projects to make knowledge work better. Real time measurement data tells without questionnaires, where the mind is at peace.

High stress levels – then what?

In my previous blog post I promised to write in detail how I dealt with my chronic stress last year. As I told, the turning point was the summer holiday when I started experiencing difficulties in falling asleep.

 

Sleep is the most important part of recovery. I did know that, but one cannot really force herself to sleep and taking sleeping pills was not an option for me. Therefore, I started tackling the stress from another direction.

The very first thing I did was downloading Headspace on my phone. Headspace is an  application using proven meditation and mindfulness techniques to train the mind for a healthier, happier, and more enjoyable life. I had tried Headspace before and was already convinced about its effectiveness. Having also tried other guided mindfulness applications I noticed that the voice matters to me! Andy Puddicombe has a voice that is calming by nature 🙂 Mindfulness is our basic human ability to be fully present, aware of our surroundings, and not being too reactive or overwhelmed by what is going on around us. According to my Moodmetric levels, mindfulness is low numbers indicating inactive sympathetic nervous system.

However, after trying mindfulness a few times at home during the weekends, I realized it was of no use. It was really difficult to find a nice and quiet place for a meditation exercise. Normally my Moodmetric numbers go down steadily during meditation exercises, but as constantly hearing kids running and screaming upstairs, I could not concentrate. By accident (I got upset for not being able to concentrate and marched out for a walk), I found out that going out for a walk lowered my stress levels more effectively than meditating at home. I continued mindfulness exercises on work days.

Then I gave up on kettlebell exercises for a few months and started going for walks instead. Before, putting my trainers on just to go for a walk, was never really an option. I had this thought that going ‘just’ for a walk was a waste of (sports) time. It started to become clear for me that exercising is a good way to prevent stress, but if you are already overloaded, strenuous exercise only adds up to high stress levels.

Working less during the evenings was an obvious move of course. However, not always being able to refrain from work, I started studying how different kind of work tasks affected my stress levels. Quite soon I noticed that writing e-mails raised my stress levels easily. On the other hand, design or creative work without time pressure kept my stress levels down. As I talked about this with our CEO she had experienced the opposite – going through e-mail was less stressful for her than any kind of creative work. This is a good reminder of how we are all individuals and should find out ourselves what are the causes of stress and sources of recovery.

Also, working remotely from home helped me to keep stress levels moderate (the kids being at daycare, of course). This is probably explained by the fact that I could solely concentrate on my work without unexpected social interruptions.  

In addition, I adjusted my diet a bit. From my previous experience I had noticed that cutting down carbs and sugar kept me steadily energetic. I also started taking vitamin and mineral supplements: D3, B12, magnesium citrate and zinc to fight the stress and help the immune system.  

In October, I started seeing clear results with my stress levels. The change had happened in my mind as well – the future seemed brighter again, less worrying thoughts and more feelings of accomplishment. I was able to concentrate better, which had a clear correlation with getting more work done. All this change in my thoughts even though nothing else had changed in my surroundings. Also no difficulties in falling asleep anymore.  

Mindfulness was probably the most effective action on my way to a less-stress life. Even though I wasn’t doing the exercises for more than two or three times a week, I felt that it helped me the most. According to studies, it takes 8 weeks to get results. In that sense, I would recommend trying mindfulness even if one can not commit to the exercises every day.

One might wonder why the actions I took seem so systematic and straightforward. Is managing stress really that simple? Yes and no.  

Knowledge work productivity and wellbeing have been my area of interest for a long time. I have acquired decent theoretical knowledge of the substance through my work as a researcher, so in that sense I was well aware how to tackle chronic stress as a knowledge worker. In general, the internet is loaded with tips and guidance towards stress free life.

However, effective stress management requires lifestyle and behavioral changes. It is easy to try something for a few times, but the hard part is adopting a lasting routine. I get my motivation to take action by looking at my stress levels on the Moodmetric app.  

The idea behind Moodmetric is that everyone should find out what are their individual sources of stress and recovery. What works for me, might not work for you. The Moodmetric ring is an excellent tool to find that out.

How to interpret the Moodmetric data

The Moodmetric level

The Moodmetric app has been developed to be extremely simple. There is a minimum amount of numbers and graphs to observe. The important results become clear when you first open the app.

The main item in the Moodmetric measurement is the Moodmetric level. This is an index derived from the electrodermal activity raw signal.

Indexing the raw measurement has many advantages: it is easy to understand, it is comparable among different users and it is immediately clear how it reflects the wearer´s reaction.

The MM level / the Moodmetric index ranges from 0–100. High numbers indicate stress, excitement or other hightened state or alertness. Low numbers indicate a calm mind. The measurement or the index do not tell if the state is positive or negative. From the physiology point of view, a high number means that the user´s sympathetic nervous system is active. The system is stressed even if the cause would be positive, e.g. if you are very enthusiastic about something. The learning is that One also needs to recover from excitement!

The MM level describes current moment and a few minutes back, and updates continuously. You can follow the changes real-time – what happens when you think of something stressful? A phone call you need to take, something you have forgotten? What happens when you just stare out of the window, and try not to think of anything?

The Moodmetric live curve / The Scope

The Scope is the raw signal of the EDA measurement. Each jump upwards is a reaction of the sympathetic nervous system. The physiological delay is about 1.5 seconds, which means that after a reaction, e.g. getting startled, a jump upwards comes with a small delay.

The Scope is especially important for users that follow closely single reactions. One example would be a UX (user experience) developer, how wants to see how test user reacts with the new updates to e.g. a mobile app.

Real-time data and stored data

The above describes the live functions, where the wearer can follow the stress and recovery levels continuously.

There is no need to keep the smartphone/pad open or near the ring, when real-time view is not needed. The ring stores measurement results for up to 270 hours, but we recommend to download data out a few times a day, to see that the ring contact to the finger is good and results are complete.

The downloading happens simply by pressing the Calendar icon.

All stored information appear as a diagram presentation on a 12 hour clock face view.

The diagram uses the MM level / the Moodmetric index to draw the presentation.

The higher the stress level, the closer to the edge of the circle the figure reaches. The color also indicates the intensity ranging from calm yellow to green, purple and finally red.

Above 75 the color is purple or red and a calm mind, numbers below 30 are indicated as beige.

You can follow fluctuating stress levels throughout the day on the clock face that begins from 6am. By swiping back and forth, you can see the following night, next day and so on. Night is indicated with a moon sign in the middle.

Daily average and step counting

Daily MM is the average Moodmetric number for a particular day. It gives you the possibility to follow the stress and recovery trends, if you use the ring regularly. This number takes into account both the day and night measurement.

Total time tells how long you have used the ring on a given day.

The Moodmetric ring works as a step counter. Steps taken on a particular day is indicated in thousand steps (k).

What do the numbers tell?

Any Moodmetric level, or color code describing it, does not mean good or bad. Important is the total daily load and the amount of recovery. The daily diagram gives a quick answer at one glance: if it is mainly red or purple, the stress levels seem to be high for long periods in a row. There should be some green and beige every day to indicate recovery.

Stress can be high also on free time. Many parents of small children feel that their load is higher at home than at work. If a person feels high stress the whole waken up time, it would be good to think where to reserve time for recovery.

You will need to look at the Moodmetric figures against your own life

Same kind of average stress levels might mean different things for different people. You will need to reflect your life and think of these questions:

  • How much work load do I have? Is the work load too big to manage?
  • Is my free time or time at home stressful? Why?
  • How do I sleep? Do I feel refreshed in the morning?
  • Are there big disturbances in my life? Are we moving house? Is some of my closed ones ill? Do my children wake my me up at nights?

If there are big things that are constantly in your mind, your stress levels are probably higher than normal. You can do many things to recover, but you need to keep in mind not to require too much of yourself. If for any reason you can not e.g. sleep as much as you wish, you need to learn to take some breaks during the day. Mindfulness and other meditative exercises might be a good way to train your mind to react less to stressful situations.
We are happy to help you further to understand your figures and how they relate to you life. Please do contact us at [email protected] !

If you have not yet tried the Moodmetric measurement, check our web shop  to know more.

Read also: How chronic stress almost caught me

The closest treasures

Happy New Year!

We truly wish you were able to enjoy stress free holidays. Looking at the selection of photos shared by friends, many did. If you post a photo clearly lying in a hammock at some exotic destination, it is the pure peace that the viewers expect you are experiencing.

But, the whole family with a flu for a week should entitle you for an additional recovery holiday before getting back to the office. As if it could happen!

Getting rid of everything and flying somewhere far is not always an option. The daily stress seems to be present both at work and at home and what good can the new year bring? Giving some thought on the year passed might just make you sigh – it is the same thing, same routines over and over again, what is there to expect, what moments to cherish later on?

The simple answer is that you most often find the best things very near you. The thing being a moment when things are just perfect, the greatest cup of coffee, or a very pretty pebble you found at the park.

It is important to keep in mind that your nervous system is at rest when you feel at peace. This is when your body recovers and is better able to face the inevitable challenges the coming days will bring. The days will bring you so many good things as well. Among the good things will be the moments that have a stamp on them ‘Take a break now, stick to the present’. Take a notice of them. If you add a good night´s sleep to each of your 24 hours, you are well equipped for the 2017!