By Amy Roberts
From artificial intelligence-powered smartphone apps to wearable technologies, new innovations are helping people find and stick with meditation and stress-relief methods best suited for their lifestyle.
In many ways, technology contributes to high stress levels by encouraging a breakneck, get-this-done-yesterday pace. Some innovators, however, are using tech to reduce stress, encourage calmness and improve wellbeing.
“Practitioners of meditation have been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and we’re all standing on their shoulders,” said Jeffrey Martin, Ph.D., a social scientist and expert in Transformative Technology who uses tech to study and assist people as they learn to meditate though his Finders Course.
“Today, we have a bit of a crescendo between modern, academic studies proving the health benefits of this ancient practice and the maturity of the Internet and technology, which together are making this the moment for innovation.”
Still, age-old meditation obstacles abound. First, there’s the human challenge of committing to the new habit. Second, meditation is not one-size-fits-all; there are many types, including the best-known, mindfulness and mantra.
In addition, it can be hard to know if the meditation style is actually helping the practitioner because there aren’t obvious quantifiable results like there are for weight-loss programs. In recent years, technologists have developed tools and applications to address these concerns, putting the quest for calm within reach.
There are dozens of popular smartphone apps, including Headspace and Calm, which feature libraries of different meditations, structured programs and push reminders. These apps also offer encouragement to keep a consistent practice and to increase the time spent meditating.
To mitigate drop-off, an app called Aura uses artificial intelligence to collect demographic information about its users. It asks users to rate their meditation experiences, which in turn informs the types of meditations recommended each day.
Measuring the Stress Response
But stress relief technology is most compelling, said Martin, when it records and measures specific physiological responses to stress.
The wearable bracelet WellBe ($149) uses an optical sensor to measure heart rate variability (HRV), a known indicator of stress level. HRV is the time interval between the beats of the heart, and it’s been proven that when that interval varies from beat to beat, a person is experiencing stress.
“We give you the ability to measure stress any time of day as well as automatically, and give you stats to learn about the triggers of your stress,” said WellBe co-founder Doron Libshtein.
By taking hourly records and cross-referencing the wearer’s online calendar and geolocation, the WellBe app can identify high-stress situations and provide meditations — mined from MentorsChannel.com, which Libshtein also founded — to combat them.
Viewing a log over time, Martin said, can have a de-stressing effect, too.
“It’s really informative to learn about the body’s habits and response patterns that you can’t consciously pick up,” he said. By bringing awareness to stress via the data, the user can make both intentional and subconscious adjustments to reduce stress.
Taking a different tech tact, the Spire ($150), a clip worn on your belt or bra, is part activity tracker and part breathing monitor. The latter determines respiration rate and depth of the breath via the expansion and contraction of the torso using force sensors. When the Spire detects a shallower or faster breathing pattern than is normal for the wearer, it classifies your stress state accordingly and syncs it to the person’s calendar and location. Instant notifications immediately alert the wearer and offer guided breathing exercises to combat the elevated respiration rate.
Alternatively, The Pip ($179) measures stress before and after meditation sessions. It is equipped with galvanic skin response (GSR) sensors, enabling the device to determine stress level based on electrodermal activity (EDA), which is the skin’s ability to conduct electric currents. When a person experiences stress, their skin sweats more, making electrical impulses travel faster.
Users must actively engage with the device instead of waiting passively for feedback, according to Marie Clarke, head of marketing for Galvanic, which manufactures the Pip.
“The fact that you take it out and interact with it, you’re doing something intentional to make yourself less stressed,” Clarke said. “You get quantitative real-time feedback during and after your meditation session. It becomes a coping mechanism when you’re faced with stress.”
With regular practice, meditation trains the body and mind to automatically use coping strategies in response to high-stress situations. While many people struggle with a consistent meditation practice, some technologies act as meditation in their own right by getting the user to focus.
The company Thync, for example, employs transdermal neurostimulation — a very low electric current — in a device that adheres to the head and neck. The device stimulates the nerves to relax or energize the wearer, depending on the program chosen.
The Thync Relax hones in on the calming frequencies and administers them to the back of the neck to provide deep relaxation in sessions lasting 30 minutes or less, according to Isy Goldwasser, co-founder and CEO of Thync.
“This is geared for people who often feel stress and anxiety and sleep less than six hours a night,” she said. “You don’t have to sit in a dark room and breathe quietly to feel the effects.”
The stress-intervention system, NuCalm, involves a four-step process: the skin application or ingestion of GABA, an amino acid that functions as the main calming neurotransmitter in the brain; the application of a cranial electrostimulation device that emits a very low electrical current; listening to music underlain with neuroacoustic software to provoke relaxation; and a light-blocking eye mask.
“The concept behind it is to balance the autonomic nervous system between the stress and rest response,” said James M. Poole, NuCalm’s president and CEO.
“We put the brakes on the stress and kick up the rest by bringing the brainwave function to between 4 and 7 hertz, which is just above deep sleep, or the state that some monks can achieve through meditation.”
The original system costs $4,295 and, as an FDA class III medical device, it requires a prescription. A relatively more affordable consumer unit, ReNu by NuCalm, are slated for release this November for about $900, according to the company.
A Stress-Free Future
While Martin is enthusiastic about these innovations, he sees opportunities for improvement.
“The interesting gulf is on the data-processing side,” he explained.
Hardware and sensors are improving, but the challenge lies in creating algorithms to meaningfully interpret the data, said Martin. Bringing more meaning to people’s lives is an essential function for these stress-reducing technology to integrate seamlessly into the wide variety of lifestyles.