Can you beat stress with a wellbeing device?

I must admit, I am a gadget junkie. I love smartphones, ipads, fitbits and anything else I can get my hands on. But I had never really thought much about stress-relieving gadgets, until one of my clients started to wax lyrical about her ‘stress balancing bracelet’. I couldn’t resist, so I bought one to try out.

We all know that stress can affect our quality of life. But sometimes, it can be difficult to see exactly where stress is coming from. Does it peak during our daily commute to work, is it something to do with an irritating work colleague, or perhaps it is something related to home life? More often than not, it is a combination of many factors.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could track our stress levels as the day, weeks and months go by? Maybe that way we could see what, where and when our stress levels peak. Well, this is all possible with one of the many stress monitors that are on the market.

But first, a word of caution. I am a psychotherapist and, as such, would never advocate substituting professionals counselling for a device that is worn on the wrist, or on any other part of the body. Having said that, I do think these devices have their place.

Stress monitor

The Wellbe Stress Balancing Bracelet is a Bluetooth-enabled unit that integrates with a smartphone app. Basically, it uses a proprietary algorithm based on your heart rate and variable heart rate to identify stress levels, and calmness, throughout the day.

The bracelet comes in various colours; cork effect, silver and black. It is lightweight to wear and the strap comes in small, medium or large. The unit charges via a USB cable, which is provided in the kit.

Setup through the Wellbe app was fairly straightforward. Downloading the app and device pairing went smoothly. Their website is quite informative and provides a couple of good videos to get you started. The videos aren’t really necessary but they provide interesting background to the device.

Finally, after setting up the  basics, you will need to take baseline measurements, but the app and the device provide step-by-step instructions.

The smartphone app

When wearing the bracelet, measurements are taken automatically every hour, and the app updates the data quickly. Based on your heart rate and variable heart rate your stress level is measured on a 100-point scale, from ‘calm’ to ‘high’ stress.

wellbe2

You can see real-time information on the app. The really nice thing about this device is the correlation between stress levels and time/location. For example, if your stress level peaks at, say 10.30 in the morning, you will be able to see where you were at that time. Over a period of several days and weeks, and even months, you will be able to analyse when and where you are experiencing the most stress.

Another great thing about the device is the ‘alert’ function. It will notify you if you are getting close to ‘high’ levels of stress. It will even suggest relaxation exercises. I tried the ‘ambient music’ exercise and it worked really well. According to the bracelet, I lowered my stress level from high to calm in just under ten minutes while listening to the music. Ambient music is only one of many different exercises the app will suggest for you.

In addition to the exercise suggestions, there are many podcasts to download and listen to. The bracelet will prompt you when it ‘thinks’ you need a podcast! According to the Wellbe website, there are over 30 hours of content available via their app. There is the option to subscribe to a larger collection but it is not really necessary. Thankfully, the app doesn’t bombard you with prompts to pay for a subscription and there are no in-app purchases, which is good.

Disadvantage

One of the annoying things about the bracelet, which I also find with my fitbit, is the intermittent readings. I like to wear the strap quite loose around my wrist and often the data link gets lost.  If the strap is not positioned correctly it is easy to lose data.

As always, battery technology hasn’t quite kept up. The device will only last two days before needing a charge. It is not really a problem because I put it on charge everyday when in the shower in the morning.

In conclusion, I thought the bracelet was wonderful. It is more than a toy, it can give you a really good indication about stress levels and how they vary over time. The app, in my opinion, is excellent and the vast variety of content to help alleviate stress is very good too.

The main disadvantage for me was the short battery life and the data loss. However, I think the latter is more to do with how I like to wear watches and bracelets.

Overall, a nice piece of kit. Not too expensive either; it retails in the UK for about £115. Well worth the money and I would certainly recommend it.

Take a look at the Wellbe website or Amazon for availability.

Let me know if anyone has tried a stress balancing bracelet.

 

Breathe your way to greater health

When stressed or irritated by someone or something, everyone knows to take a deep breath and count to ten. That would seem to suggest that a deep breath is somehow good at calming the brain. Well, latest research has found exactly that.

For over 2,000 years, Buddhists and yoga gurus have promoted the benefits of breath-focused meditation. Modern meditation practice usually starts with focusing on inhalation and exhalation. But it was generally considered that ‘clearing the mind’ of all thoughts was the aim of meditation and that focusing on breathing was a way to help us to clear the mind. However, latest research, carried out at Trinity College Dublin, has found an interesting connection between focused breathing and brain health.

Firstly, lets deal with the science bit. Noradrenaline is an important brain chemical, which is released when we are challenged and emotionally aroused. This chemical is the brain fertilizer because it helps to promote growth of neurons and it helps our brains to form new neuro-networks.

Although noradrenaline is an essential chemical, an incorrect balance in the brain can cause us some harm. For example, too little can result in lethargy, lack of concentration and even depression.

Now comes the interesting bit. The research carried out in Dublin found a connection between the amount of noradrenaline produced, our concentration levels and our breathing.

The team at Trinity College measured breathing, reaction time and brain activity in the brainstem (the area where noradrenaline is produced). They found that levels of noradrenaline increase slightly when the subjects focused on their breathing. In turn, concentration levels and reaction times improved when noradrenaline levels increased.

It would appear that focusing on our breath can stimulate the brainstem to produce exactly the right levels of noradrenaline, which improves our attention and concentration.

By focusing on our breathing for a few minutes each day, levels of brain chemicals can get regulated and optimised, leading to an overall improvement in concentration and the ability to focus longer and deeper on tasks.

Meditation has long-term benefits too

Our brains usually lose mass as we age. However, brain mass in long-term meditators doesn’t lose as much mass when compared to brains of non-meditators. More ‘youthful’ brains are less likely to suffer from dementia and memory loss, possibly because neuro-networks stay strong and healthy.

Meditation or mindfulness is often taught to people who have suffered brain injury and the results can be very encouraging. Neurons can be stimulated to form new connections and thus achieve partial repair.

So, there really is a connection between meditation and brain health. Yogis have been advocating this for many many years and the latest research would suggest they are correct. The team at Trinity have provided a deeper understanding of the neurophysiological benefits of this ancient concept.

Perhaps the secret to a healthy brain is indeed to practice regular breath-focused meditation.

For more on meditation, take a look at my podcasts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The benefits of forest bathing

What is the main similarity between sushi and forest bathing?

They are both imports from Japan!

When sushi first arrived on the shores of the UK there was much scepticism about the food. But look at how it has taken off. Perhaps forest bathing will go the same way.

What is forest bathing?

Many people might think forest bathing is something to do with swimming in a river that flows through a forest. In fact, it has nothing to do with swimming, nor bathing. Instead, it is all about using your senses to soak up the atmosphere of a forest.

Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Surprisingly, it is also one of the most heavily forested countries too. In the 1980s, The Japanese government, concerned about high stress levels, carried out research that found a two-hour forest-bathing session reduced blood pressure and lowered cortisol levels. Cortisol spikes during periods of stress and although we need this steroid, continual high levels can be detrimental to our wellbeing.

Trees release phytoncides, which are antimicrobials. These help to protect them from insects and bacteria. The research in Japan concluded that phytoncides could have an anti-microbial effect on humans. In Japan, forest bathing, known as shinrin-yoku, was introduced as a national health programme.

More recently, the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences at Japan’s Chiba University, measured physiological effects of 280 people. Blood pressure, cortisol levels and pulse rates were measured during a day in the city and then compared with the same biometrics taken during an hour in a forest. The study found that forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol and greater parasympathetic nerve activity, which is associated with stress reduction.

Scepticism

Yes, I was definitely sceptical when I first read all this stuff about tree-hugging. And then I thought, why not give it a go. I started researching shinrin-yoku a few years ago and I am now fully hooked on the concept. I have always enjoyed walks in the forest, but I have found a whole new dimension to time amongst the trees.

Forest bathing is not simply ‘walking in the forest’. Instead, it is about allowing all your senses to experience mindfulness in nature. It is a form of meditation.

I often take small groups into the forest for art and photography therapy. One of the first things I do now is to get my group to sit down and close their eyes. I ask them to concentrate and to ‘feel’ the ground beneath their feet. After a few minutes, I ask them to concentrate on their breathing and to enjoy inhaling the scent of pine trees. Next comes sound. Concentrating on the different sounds of the forest can reveal amazing things that might otherwise be missed. Finally, after about 15 minutes, I get my group to open their eyes and look up into the canopy. I challenge everyone to find at least twenty different things. Usually they spot many more than this.

Mindfulness in nature can really help to reduce stress, and to bring about a feeling of happiness and contentment.

I would highly recommend spending some time in a forest. But don’t just walk amongst the trees, instead enjoy all they have to offer the senses. You could even end your forest bathing session with a Japanese tea ceremony, which involves taking tea infused with foraged nettles, pine needles or blackberries. The first cup is traditionally offered to the forest, as a thank you.

Let me know if you have tried forest bathing and mindfulness in nature.

 

 

 

 

 

They are not laughing now

I know this an old story, but I like to keep it alive. It is a story of hope for everyone who has self-doubt and for those who hide behind a caricature they present to the world.

Whenever I work with a new client, particularly those who are struggling with their identity, I always send them a link to a clip on YouTube. The reaction I usually get from people who haven’t already seen the clip is incredible. Most people are moved by the shy 47-year-old who has spent her life being dismissed and written off. I have watched it many times and I am still moved by it today.

I am talking about Susan Boyle. She lived in a small town in Scotland, and she dreamed about being a professional singer since she was 12 years old. Susan was bullied at school and she suffered from mental ill-health throughout her life. Shy, retiring, and a person with massive self-doubt describes Susan. I could go on and on with words such as ‘lacking self-confidence’, ‘insecure’ and ‘reserved’ – all of these describe Susan Boyle.

But Susan had a dream, and she kept hold of that dream. In many ways, I think her desire to achieve her aim was stronger than her low self-esteem. Her dream kept her going.

Persuaded by friends and relations, Susan took the plunge and applied for the TV show, Britain’s Got Talent. When she stepped onto the stage at the auditorium in Glasgow, the judges laughed, winced and cringed as the very nervous Susan Boyle tried to introduce herself. The audience was laughing too. They were anticipating an awful performance. Judges and the audience had written-off Susan before she got started. They were looking at the outside of the person rather than anticipating what was within.

And then an incredible thing happened. Susan raised the microphone and she started to sing. Within 30 seconds the audience were on their feet. Susan delivered a stunning performance, a performance for every person who has ever felt they were robbed of hope.

At the end of the performance, Susan watched the packed auditorium deliver a standing ovation. The presenters, Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly, grinned from cheek to cheek. The judges’ expressions were of shock, surprise and wonderment.

Piers Morgan, one of the judges on the show, said: “Without doubt, that was the biggest surprise I have had in three years on this show.” Morgan told Susan, “When you stood there with that cheeky grin and said, ‘I want to be like Elaine Paige,’ everyone was laughing at you. No one is laughing now.”

That audition was almost ten years ago and since then Susan has gone on to release many albums and has toured the world. However, she has been suffering with health problems and hasn’t done very much, at least musically, for the last three years. But things are changing again because she will be releasing a new ‘come-back’ album before the end of the year.

I think Susan’s story is great. People who watch the clip are often inspired to do things they have been dreaming about. They give it a go regardless of what people think of them. That is the crux of this tale. Not everyone will end up with a £50 million fortune like Susan Boyle, but everyone can give it a go.

People might mock, they might laugh, and they might try to discourage you from your dream. Don’t let them. Hang onto your dream and visualise it. If you want something badly enough, give it a go. Let them laugh and mock if they want to, because deep inside you will be fulfilled and happy.

Please watch the clip and let me know your thoughts.