Measuring stress levels in real time motivates to pay attention to mental load every day

There are reports in media daily about work and study-related stress, burnouts and the increase of mental load, especially among knowledge workers. The focus is on what to do when stress has already become chronic. The act of balancing between mental load and recovery is yet to become an everyday task.

There are tools for companies and occupational health to gather objective, real-time data about an individual’s cognitive and emotional stress. They comprise an efficient method for preventing the build-up of stress when applied before the load gets too high.

The tool matters

When the aim is to pay attention to mental load, the Moodmetric measurement provides just the needed data. The Moodmetric smart ring, worn as a normal ring, is a measuring device that gathers accurate information about cognitive and emotional stress, around the clock. The smartphone app shows real-time data. Measuring in real time motivates to pay attention to one’s choices affecting mental well-being every day.

Why is it important that the measuring happens in real time?

We all need feedback. The most effective is instant feedback that makes us see the cause and effect, better realizing the connection between what we did and what was the outcome.

Real-time measurement also catches our attention and encourages us to try out things that might affect the result. For example, how fast does my stress level go down if I breathe deeply for 5 minutes in front of an open window?

Measuring stress levels in real time motivates to pay attention to mental load every day

Let’s say a meeting lasts from 2pm to 3pm. The topic is inspiring, the participants throw in new ideas, decisions are made. A person wearing the Moodmetric ring follows her stress levels during the meeting and sees them fluctuating between 45 and a full 100. Alternatively she gives a glance at the app after the meeting. The numbers show that the stress levels were high. And because the feeling was positive, she concludes that this was a meeting inducing positive stress. She knows that recovery is important also from excitement and takes a moment to relax in a quiet space before the next meeting. The sympathetic nervous system calms down, both the body and mind get a moment of rest.

A long enough period of uninterrupted measuring, roughly two weeks, provides reliable data of the amount of mental load the person is experiencing. It contains a good number of different kinds of days, where one exceptional day does not significantly affect the big picture.

The Moodmetric measurement tells about the amount of mental load

The right metric helps to increase self-understanding and tells where the personal boundaries for high and low stress reside. Objective data, namely a clear number is a decision-making tool and a call for action: “After a day at the office, is it better for me to go jogging, or just for a walk along the scenic route?”

Measuring devices can be used continuously or periodically until the person feels that their control over the issues causing mental load has improved.

The Moodmetric measurement

The Moodmetric smart ring gives real-time information on what increases and what decreases mental load during day and night. It supports the wearer in finding the optimal balance between emotional and cognitive stress versus recovery.

A two-week Moodmetric measurement period is sufficient to provide the user with an understanding of their stress levels. If the levels are normal, the measurement can be repeated in, say, a year. If the levels are very high, it is advised to discuss with a healthcare professional about the data and make your own assessment of the load and its causes, both at and off work.

Go to the Moodmetric Shop

 

Our contact information

Moodmetric will participate the HIMSS conference the 12th-13th June in Helsinki.

Drop in at our booth 6g34 on both days (Wed-Thu) for a live demo and to test the Moodmetric ring for yourself – welcome!

 

 

Good start to stress management

The starting level and objectives in stress management are as important as when maintaining physical condition. An employer wishes that every employee is with good health and well-being for the duration of their career. Most companies systematically take actions to promote this. When looking at stress management from an individual point of view, there are as many situations as people.

From a physical point of view someone might have as an objective to spend less time on a couch. Another wants to run a marathon or win a competition in weight lifting. Regarding the mental well-being, too many just would like to manage it until tomorrow.

“5 simple ways to live a less stressful life” or  “7 tips to managing daily stress”  are interesting titles and lead thoughts to how things are in ones´ life. Often these tips do not take into account the big picture nor is the experienced stress positive or negative.

The Moodmetric smart ring is the only wearable that shows the cognitive and emotional stress real time, and enables measuring also in long term.

The Moodmetric measurement data from several years has brought better understanding on stress

Analyzing the Moodmetric  data over the course of four years has helped us to better understand the fluctuating stress levels. The measurement periods are are from 2 weeks to years, which enables seeing how changes in life affect the stress levels. It has become clear, that a person’s starting point plays an important role in stress management.

1. People stress differently

Based on the Moodmetric measurement people can be roughly divided to two categories

  • Reaching high stress levels often and easily, both out of excitement and of negative stress. This means reacting often very strongly to emotional and cognitive stimuli.
  • Those who react more flatly, have less deviation from average values. Also these people can reach high Moodmetric-levels very fast, but they normally soon return back to equilibrium.

In the first group people might need to pay more attention to recovery every day. Sleep can be very deep when balance has been gained.

Example: A typical Moodmetric 24 hour measurement of a person easily reaching high stress levels. On the left the day from 6am to 6pm, on the right the night from 6pm to 6am.

In the second group the recovery during the night might not need to be as complete. This is because the load of the sympathetic nervous system is more modest during the day.

Example: A typical Moodmetric 24 hour measurement of a person with modest response to stress. On the left the day from 6am to 6pm, on the right the night from 6pm to 6am.

It is good to understand my own way to react to stress. There are as many ways as there are persons, and this can also change with different phases of life.

No way to react is better than the other. During evolution all types were needed – this has not changed. People acting differently are needed in social and occupational context. Diversity is good also regarding stress responses. 

2. You need to recover also from excitement

Also positive stress can wear out when going on for a long time. People devoted to their work, entrepreneurs, creative people and many others sometimes enjoy positive stress for too long. A dream job can also lead to burnout.a.

Devices and tests might tell a lot, but the most important is own experience. What is the situation in my life – the work, family, leisure, friends? Do I feel things are pretty good, or is some area of my life very demanding right now? If I say I am stressed, what does it feel like and how does it affect my life?

The Moodmetric smart ring is a support for individual stress management. It gives valuable measurement data and helps in better self understanding.

The measurement data always needs to be put in the context of own life. Same numbers can in different situations mean a different thing. Very low Moodmetric levels have been measured both with depressed and those who are simply always calm.

3. Good start to managing stress is to understand oneself and one’s life

What stresses me out, how do I calm down, what is my individual way to react? A short practice: Can you easily place yourself to the below fourfold table of wellbeing? No that your position might vary depending on whether you think of work, family or other part of life.

The wellbeing fourfold is for determining how high is the stress/arousal level, and is the state positive or negative. The Moodmetric measurement shows the stress level on a scale of 1 to 100. The app Analytics screen shows the chosen categories of life on a similar fourfold, when the user has defined the mood as pleasant/unpleasant. (Use the Diary feature for this.)

When defining where I am on the map, it is good to understand what was discussed in point 1: how do I react to stress. Some people mainly move in lower part of the picture, high levels of stress or excitement are not natural. Whether stress level is low or high, the right side of the fourfold is better in long term.

the Moodmetric measurement helps to manage stress better

The Moodmetric measurement helps to put oneself to the correct spot on the picture of own life and stress. What stresses me out, what not, what are my stress levels comparing the objective – ie. balance?

– What Moodmetric levels one should aim at?

No single measurement result is good or bad. In long term the objective is balance. This means that sleep and rest during the day compensate the activation of the sympathetic nervous system due to emotional or cognitive load. When the Moodmetric daily average number is about 50, it indicates balance of the autonomic nervous system.

Good start to managing stress is to acknowledge own situation as accurately as possible. Measured cognitive and emotional load is often both a support and a motivating factor.

 

The Moodmetric smart ring is available at the Moodmetric web shop.

Inquiries about the Moodmetric services for organizations: [email protected]

Read more about the Moodmetric company measurement at HERE Technologies. 

 

 

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

The autonomic nervous system regulates the functions of our body as situations so require. Recovery and healing systems are the most active during sleep.  After lunch it is important to digest the food and use the nutrients efficiently. When faced with imminent threat, the immune system and food processing are not important. These functions are turned off to conserve all possible energy for the use of muscles, which are needed in the fight-or-flight response.

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

The autonomic nervous system consists of two complementary parts, the sympathetic and parasympathetic.  When active, the parasympathetic nervous system slows down our heartbeat, enhancing digestion and healing. It strives to calm the body down and keep the vital functions stable.

The sympathetic part is responsible for preparing our body for action, with the axons (nerve fibers) of the system being able to innervate tissues in almost every organ. The sympathetic nervous system becomes active in stressful situations and during hard physical strain.

Both parts of the autonomic nervous systems normally work in good cooperation, but as a seesaw.  When the other becomes active, the other slows down. For instance, in acute stress reaction the sympathetic nervous system works at full speed, in an instant. The parasympathetic part ceases to operate and, for example, digestion almost comes to a halt. The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems have evolved to enable accurate and fast regulation of our internal mechanisms, regardless of the situation.

The fight-or-flight response is a way for us to cope in a threatening, rapidly escalating situation. In the time of cavemen, situations requiring response were normally quickly over and fights did not last for weeks or months. For us today, things can be completely different: 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 evolutionary point of view, this makes sense: If a crocodile attacks, we can shut down all the functions in the body that are not essential for fleeing or fighting. The immune defense of our body is weakened when we are continuously stressed, and this might lead to a series of infections. 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 put further strain on the sympathetic nervous system; physical symptoms persist, recovery via beneficial rest and sleep does not happen.

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 is about to start at any time. Cortisol, in turn, tells our body to have much energy available. It then enhances appetite and storing of extra energy, with might lead to weight gain.

Cortisol is also released to the hippocampus, the part of our brain which is central for memorizing and learning. A stressed-out person has difficulties in learning and regulating their emotions. There are also often problems associated with concentration and memory.

Burnout

Chronic stress cannot go on forever without its repercussions. Burnout is the consequence of chronic stress causing severe disturbance to our vital physical and mental mechanisms. A simultaneous collapse of our psychological, neural, metabolic and immune systems might be so all-encompassing that a complete recovery is very slow or even impossible.

The best cure for burnout is prevention. It can be difficult to accept the graveness of the situation. People tend to compare themselves and their work rhythms to others, set the bar too high and pretend that everything is fine. Just moments before the disintegration takes place, everything might appear quite normal for the people around.

Talk to your friends and family, colleagues, your superior or a health care professional if you feel that the load is too high. Usually the first cautionary signs are linked to changes in your sleep patterns.

The brain, sleep and stress

When our lives are in balance, we recover from acute stress reactions and even longer burdensome periods of strain. We all experience major turning points in our lives: a newcomer to the family, moving house, a study or work project that is exceptionally demanding. We overcome these changes and challenges when the quality and amount of recovery is sufficient enough.

Sleep is our most important means of recovery and an indicator of balance. Weeks and months of disturbed sleep is a sign of stress, and sleep deprivation further weakens our resilience to adapt to the challenges we have to deal with.

The brain needs sleep. During sleep our bodies repair and restore in ways we’re not aware of. It is almost like we need a nightly reboot to feel physically and mentally well.

There is no health without sleep. The importance of proper recovery becomes clear after experiencing periods of sleeping poorly. At worst life is reduced to mere coping. Unfortunately, this is reality for so many of us, so much so that we have begun to think it is normal not to sleep enough. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

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

The complete set of 5 articles explains the Moodmetric measurement, science behind and the applications:

  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 

 

PART 1: Fight or flight response

Our bodies do not let us down when faced with a life-endangering situation. They prepare us for the fight with the many means available to us as a result of evolution.

The amygdala is an area of the brain that controls our decision-making and emotional responses. Its tasks include the processing of fear and evaluation of the threat, all based on information conveyed to us by our senses, such as our eyes and ears. From what we have learned, a crocodile presents an extremely dangerous threat, causing the amygdala to instantly send an emergency signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain is like a command center that communicates with the rest of the body, activating the sympathetic nervous system in an alarming situation.

The fight or flight response is activated by the sympathetic nervous system

The sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight-or-flight response before we consciously make any decision on how to act. Many things happen very fast. First the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine (also called noradrenaline) are released into our system. We notice the effects: Rapid pulse and respiration increase oxygen intake for fast action. Blood pressure goes up and extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. Blood sugar (glucose) and fats from energy stores are released into the bloodstream to give us the extra power we need.

Skin temperature goes up and the increased sweat on the palms of our hands improves our grip– should we need to climb a tree to flee. Digestion is slowed down – all our energy is now conserved for staying alive.

All these reactions are caused by some very fast chemical processes in our body. Our preparedness for the fight is automatic and we flee away from the crocodile without conscious cognitive processing.

The flight-or-fight response and Walter B. Cannon

The term fight or flight was first used by M.D. Walter B. Cannon in 1915. He studied and taught at Harvard University department of psychology and specialized in the research of physical reactions of laboratory animals under pressure.

In his research Cannon observed noticeable physical changes in the digestive systems of animals experiencing fear. He subsequently spent some 20 years studying the relationship of psychological and physical effects of stress on animals.

Cannon also redefined the biological term homeostasis to signify the internal balance of the body. According to Cannon, our bodies continuously seek to maintain a predefined state of equilibrium by regulating the complex interdependent system of organs. Changes in variables such as body temperature and fluid balance set off a series of processes aimed at returning the body to its original balance.

‘The homeostatic definition of stress: A condition where expectations, whether genetically programmed, established by prior learning, or deduced from circumstances, do not match the perception of the environment. This discrepancy between what is observed or sensed and what is expected or programmed elicits patterned responses.’

Still in danger

Let´s get back to the threat of coming face to face with a crocodile. If the crocodile we see turns out to be a soft stuffed toy, we take a deep breath and laugh out in relief.

If, however, the threat is real and a fight is unavoidable, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis or HTPA axis) is activated after the first surge of adrenaline subsides. The HPA axis keeps the sympathetic nervous system up and running as long as needed, until the fight is over.

This adrenal cortex produces hormones that contribute to the release of cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that has several functions, including the controlling of the blood sugar level during stress reaction. The hormonal effects induced by the adrenal cortex are called indirect stress responses as they work through the bloodstream. The effects of these responses take place within 20-30 seconds. In contrast, the immediate stress responses described in the beginning of this article are induced by the sympathetic nervous system and visible in a few seconds.

Recovery from a stress reaction

When the threat has been removed and the brain no longer perceives the environment as dangerous, the frontal cortex gets a message of ‘alarm cancelled’. The high levels of reaction by the sympathetic nervous system come down and the amygdala makes the parasympathetic nervous system return the body to its normal relaxed state. The fight-or-flight response is over.

The body needs about 20 minutes to physically recover from an acute stress reaction. An adrenaline surge impacts our bodies up to an hour form reaction. The release of hormones by the adrenal cortex started later and thus also last longer. The production of cortisol will cease too once the danger has passed, and consequently the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems is attained.

Our bodies can uphold a stress reaction for a very long time. Humans are built to face threats and fight for their lives, normally in rapidly escalating situations that are also over quickly. Activation and preparedness to attack are normal reactions, as well as excitement and joy of victory.

Multitasking, taxes, interests, tormenting colleagues, lost phones and broken household appliances – these were non-existent in the early days of the human species. The problem is that we cannot turn off the surge of adrenaline when our attacker is a phone bill.

The complete set of 5 articles explains the Moodmetric measurement, science behind and the applications:

  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 

The picture and information about Walter Cannon 

 

What is moodtech? – Science behind Moodmetric

Moodmetric measures the electrodermal activity (EDA) of the skin, which is widely adopted in psychological research 1. EDA is generated by activity of the sweat glands.  Moodmetric measures the palmar skin on your finger. The palmar skin is the recommended EDA measurement location, since it has the highest sweat gland density2.

The unconscious actions of the human body are regulated by the autonomic nervous system. It consists of the sympathetic part and the parasympathetic part. The parasympathetic part controls the body’s rest-and-digest functions and the sympathetic part controls fight-or-flight reactions. When bodily functions are not of interest and the emotional side is, sympathetic nervous system is your choice.

The sweat glands are exclusively innervated by the sympathetic nervous system. This makes EDA an ideal measure for sympathetic activation.2 Electrodermal activity correlates to general emotional intensity, negative emotion, concern, and anxiety. 1, 3 These emotions cause almost similar electrodermal responses, which makes them very hard to differentiate. However, Moodmetric will tell you if certain parts of your day have brought up emotions or not. Inversely, Moodmetric tells you weather you are calm or not. This is particularly useful during your mindfulness, meditation and other calming exercises.

Mobile EDA devices have been used by scientists for some time2, 4, and now we bring this technology within everyone´s reach.

Signal accuracy

The signal accuracy has been proven in a study of 24 people by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health by J. Torniainen et al.. The accuracy against a laboratory grade reference was found to be 83 %. They conclude:

“Clearly the ring sensor can be used to measure a valid EDA signal as indicated by the similarity of both event-related responses and the calculated features. The accuracy of the Moodmetric EDA Ring is adequate for psychological and physiological research when weighted against the advantage of conducting ecologically valid experiments outside laboratory conditions.”

The results have been accepted for publication in the 2015 conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBC 2015, August 25-29).

Our measurement has been proven to be accurate also by University of Tampere, Finland. The correlation with the reference equipment Nexus-10-MK II was good. Comparison details in charts below.

image1 image2 image3 image4

1 Mendes, W.B. (2009). Assessing the autonomic nervous system. In: Harmon-Jones   E. ja Beer J.S. Methods in social neuroscience. New York: Guilford Press. p. 118-147.

2 Setz C., Arnrich B., Schumm J. and La R. (2010) Discriminating Stress From Cognitive Load Using a Wearable EDA Device. IEEE Trans. Inf. Technol. Biomed. 14(2). p. 410-417.

3 Nikula R. (1991) Psychological correlates of nonspecific skin conductance responses. Psychophysiology. 28(1). p.86-90.

4 Poh M.Z, Swenson N.C. and Picard R.W. (2010) A Wearable Sensor for Unobtrusive, Long-Term Assessment of Electrodermal Activity. IEEE Trans. Biomed. Eng. 57(4). p. 1243-1252.

 

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