How innovations can help us reverse the impact of stress


The Muse brain sensing headband claims to help users manage stress and different emotional states of mind. (Julie Jacobson/AP)

We live in a stressful era. Our lives are stressed, our cities are stressed, and our overscheduled children are stressed. There’s even a new term – “second-hand stress” – to describe how stress can be passed on to others as if it were contagious.

In many ways, you can blame technology — it’s making our lives faster, busier and more complicated. So, it’s comforting that technology innovators in fields ranging from mobile technology to neuroscience are rethinking how we monitor, treat and yes, reverse the impact of stress in our lives.

De-stressing via your smartphones

You probably think of your smartphone as a source of stress, rather than as a way to combat stress. To counter that perception, mobile innovators started by launching a round of apps for iOS and Android that promised to help users reduce the level of stress and anxiety in their lives. Some of these apps were nothing more than meditation timers, guides to breathing exercises or a selection of relaxing melodies. Others, though, such as the Huffington Post’s GPS for the Soul, offered a preview of how factors such as heart rate could be monitored by your smartphone to help you de-stress.

Now that Google and Apple are jumping into the digital health game, you can understand what might become the new goal for app developers — a “stress app” that will help people not only deal with stress in their lives, but also monitor, measure and track it on their smartphones. One of the latest prospects is a smartphone tool that measures the level of the stress hormone cortisol content in your saliva. Using a disposable test strip for saliva in combination with a smartphone, users might one day be able to get a readout of their stress levels within 10 minutes at minimal cost.

Tracking stress via wearable devices

Those saliva tests conducted with the help of our smartphones hint at what’s next — biosensors implanted within our bodies that relay information about our body’s reaction to environmental stressors on a 24/7 basis. For example, DARPA is currently developing biosensors for one of the most stressful environments around — the battlefield. Soldiers with these embedded biosensors would be able to provide military leaders with real-time readouts of stress levels or other factors that impact battle readiness.

It’s easy to see how these biosensors could be adapted for civilian purposes, now that the wearable technology trend appears to be taking off. At this year’s CES in Las Vegas, for example, one of the innovations on display was the Muse brainwave sensing headband. In the future, sensors could detect signs of stressors being released by the body in addition to the brain’s activity. You can almost imagine CEOs buying special “power ties” loaded up with biosensors capable of measuring heart rate, breathing rhythms or even skin palpitations.

Genetically modified stress

At the end of the day, stress is really just the human body’s physical response to the surrounding environment. So, it’s only natural that some people simply have better genetics than others when it comes to managing and dealing with stress. It’s the reason why some athletes want the ball in the deciding moments of a close game, and why others don’t. We say that some people have “ice in their veins” or are “cool under pressure” to mean that their bodies don’t register stress the way most bodies do.

Given our expanding knowledge of the human genome, it’s worth considering how some bodily functions could actually be altered at the genetic level to make anyone less receptive to stress in the workplace or home. Imagine your body producing less adrenalin and less cortisol, and thereby registering less anxiety. Think of your palms and forehead not dripping with sweat the next time a stressful environment presents itself.

Reducing the impact of stress with neuroscience

We’ve all heard how stress impacts the brain, so it’s no wonder that neuroscience is emerging as a prospective way of dealing with stress. In the best-case scenario, in fact, neuroscientists might be able to reverse — or at least, negate — the impact of stress on the brain.

Here’s where it gets interesting — neuroscience is one of the windows into stress at a very young age. So, in an era when kids are overscheduled and overstressed, this might be a way to hit stress at an early age — before stress has time to aggregate over time and cause other impacts. For now, most of the suggestions from the realm of neuroscience sound more like conventional folk wisdom – let the little ones get more exercise – but once we’ve finished mapping the human brain, it’s easy to see how we might discover how stress impacts the brain’s neural pathways in other ways.

At the end of the day, though, one of the breakthrough innovations when it comes to living a stress-free life might simply be changing the way we think about stress. As Kelly McGonigal explained at TED Global last year, it’s not necessarily the case that stress is the enemy. Stress, it turns out, can also be your friend.

That’s a subtle but important point. Evolution equipped our bodies with stress responses — and some of them — like the release of oxytocin (the so-called “cuddle chemical”) — might actually be channeled in ways that make our lives better and enjoyable. One day, we might actually eat stress for breakfast and enjoy it.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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