I earned my smartwatch through my work’s health insurance plan. I’m a millennial but not a particularly tech-savvy one, so I didn’t know much about wearable tech. After frantically researching brands, I stress-purchased the prettiest watch on the website –teal with an inky-black face. 

The watch’s description said it measured heart rate, daily steps and sleep quality. It could even tell my stress level. While I knew I was stressed often, it seemed unlikely that a watch could help with de-stressing.

Since my early 20s, anxiety has washed over me at random moments during the day. My throat goes dry, my shoulders go up, and, in the past, I’ve experienced a sense of paralysis. After a few years of therapy, I learned that a key part of managing my anxiety was becoming aware of it – before taking steps to calm myself down.

It’s common for people not to notice physiological signs of stress. Memories of past stressful events can be muted by present feelings or distractions. However, noticing your stress in the moment is one of the best ways to manage it. It’s a technique called ‘noticing’, and it’s something I’ve spent years trying to nail. 

When the watch arrived on my doorstep, I ripped open the box, charged it and strapped it on as soon as it reached 100%. I didn’t know how to use the watch’s full range of features for the first few months, but I got compliments on it so I didn’t care. 

The watch told me the time and that was good enough. While bored at work one day, however, I figured out that I could download a complementary app on my phone where I input my personal body data (age, height, etc). The watch would then set step goals for me, and I’d get a happy buzz on my wrist when I accomplished them. 

I soon found myself walking more than normal – if only to experience the buzz that usually hit near the end of the day. Whether it was going out of my way to walk to the shop, circle the block or meet a mate, the daily buzz assured me that I was taking care of my body.

One morning, while I was invigilating a test at the school I worked at, the watch buzzed again. This wasn’t the normal, friendly buzz telling me I’d reached my step goal, but a more assertive, urgent buzz. I looked at the tiny screen which told me I was stressed. 

“Do you want to do a breathing exercise to relax?” my watch asked me. I was surprised. I hadn’t noticed feeling stressed, but I clicked ‘yes’ anyway. The watch made an embarrassing beeping sound and told me to breathe in, hold my breath, and breathe out. I apologized to the student taking the test about the noise and proceeded to breathe in time with the pulsing watch. After five minutes, the watch buzzed again to tell me I’d done a good job. The exercise was over. 

How smartwatches measure stress

To measure stress levels, smartwatches use heart rate variability. In other words, they measure the amount of time between each heartbeat. Heart rate variability is regulated by the nervous system. A more variable heart rate indicates lower stress levels whereas a less variable heart rate indicates high stress levels.

The stress measurement is an estimate. For instance, if you’re not moving but your heart rate is high, your watch could still note a high stress level. The watch can confuse excitement with stress. 

Jorge Barraza, co-founder of Immersion Neuroscience and professor of consumer psychology at the University of California tells Stylist that smartwatches are great because they “allow consumers to reflect, but with the caveat that the data is meant to be directional at a high level, not surgical or precise”.

After my watch’s guided breathing exercise, I didn’t feel completely zen, but I noticed my jaw was tense. I massaged it with my fingers and continued on with my day. On my drive home, I reflected on what had happened. 

Did invigilating the test make me stressed? If so, why? How could I take better care of myself at work to reduce my stress levels? Not only had the watch helped me become more physically active, but it was now helping me be more aware of my stress levels and, more broadly, my mental health.

With a smartwatch, people like me can begin to identify times and places that are difficult for them. “Adults have so much stuff going on and it’s hard to keep track of mental health,” Barraza explains. 

Multiple times over the past few months, my watch has told me to breathe. Rushing to get to work on time: breathe. Having an argument with my landlord: breathe. My watch has become a useful tool in alerting me to my stress and helping me address it in the moment. 

I constantly lose my phone and wallet, but my watch is always on. And because of that enforced consistency, I know when I’m stressed and what to do about it (at least for the next five minutes). Of course, there are limits: the watch can’t tell me whether or not to get a different job or move to a new apartment. It can’t tell me when I’m feeling really good. But stress is a state that I’m learning to be more conscious of and the watch is a great assistant for that. 

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