From Fitbit to Mindfit: The Stress Management Score Helps People Recognize How Their Body Reacts to Stress

The feeling often arrives first thing in the morning. As you wake up, the coming day’s obligations, goals, and potential pitfalls take over your thoughts. Your dis-ease increases as you deal with minor frustrations. You discover you are out of shampoo and eggs. Everything just seems a bit overwhelming. 

When a workmate on the day’s first virtual meeting casually asks you how you are, you admit the truth: You’re stressed. But when they ask you what about, you find you don’t have a ready answer. Something feels different than yesterday, but you can’t put your finger on what’s changed.

We all have a personal understanding of the feelings we associate with stress. What triggers a stress reaction varies widely from person-to-person. It can also change for an individual from day-to-day. Perhaps most frustratingly, the root causes of stress can be elusive. When it comes to the interior workings of our brains and bodies, we can sometimes be strangers to ourselves. How we cope with stress—our ability to recognize it, build resilience, and even put it to use—is a key to overall well-being. 

The new Stress Management Score on the new Fitbit Sense can give users insights into how their body is managing stress. Take, for instance, that morning when you woke up feeling stressed for no apparent reason. Checking in with Fitbit’s new Stress Management Score might reveal information hidden in the rhythm of your heart or the previous night’s sleep that you weren’t consciously aware of (score details available with Fitbit Premium). 

“If you wake up in the morning and you have a high Stress Management Score, meaning that your body is in pretty good shape, you might want to start that new project or maybe go socialize at the end of the day,” says Fitbit research scientist Dr. Samy Abdel-Ghaffar who helped create the tool. “It’s an indication that you have a little extra gas in the tank to be able to take on new challenges. If your stress score is lower than normal for you, then you might want to take it easy that day. Be kind to yourself and maybe do some meditation and get to sleep early.”

The Stress Management Score can give you insights that will help you manage a given day but, as importantly, it can help you see how your body is reacting over time. The signs of chronic stress, which can slowly build over weeks or months, can escape your notice but still have serious consequences. Paying attention to your body’s physiological signs of stress can help you avoid a health crisis. 

What Does The Stress Management Score Measure?

Because the experience of stress can be sparked by a combination of various physiological and psychological changes, Fitbit’s Stress Management function casts a wide net in collecting data. There are a dozen different metrics and factors that go into making up your daily score, which displays a scale of 1 to 100, with a higher score indicating that your body is showing balance and healthy physiological indicators of stress. 

Those 12 measurements can be broken up into three categories: Exertion Balance, Sleep Patterns and Responsiveness.

Exertion Balance takes into account your recent physical activity like steps and accounts for both overexertion or lack of exercise. 

Sleep Patterns include measurements of deep sleep from the previous night and whether your sleep was fitful or fragmented. It also tracks your “sleep reservoir” based on the amount and quality of sleep you’ve managed over the previous week. 

Responsiveness monitors your sympathetic nervous system, aka your flight or flight response, by monitoring your heart rate and heart rate variability. 

A proprietary algorithm weights the 12 different metrics and creates a stress score that an individual can track overtime. 

Because no technology can read your mind, the user can also manually log their perceived stress on a scale from “very stressed” to “very calm.” Using this “reflections” tool, an individual can compare their perception to the Stress Management Score that aggregates the data the watch collects automatically. 

Does a Low Stress Management Score Always Mean I’m Feeling Bad?

Interestingly, early testing of the Stress Management Score among several thousand Fitbit community member-volunteers suggested that it isn’t unusual for a person’s reported mood sometimes to be quite different from what one might expect from their Stress Score. For example, in the morning after running your first half-marathon, your Stress Score might be lower than your baseline based on changes in your heart rate variability and other signals showing that you pushed your body to its limits. You might not perceive any of that as “stress” because you feel positively ebullient after accomplishing one of your long term goals. 

“There are some people whose physiological signals suggest a lot of stress in their life. Their heart rate might be racing all the time, but they just don’t perceive it as stress,” says Conor Heneghan, Lead Research Scientist at Fitbit. “And conversely, there’s people whose physiological responses are fine. But their psychological construct is, ‘I’m feeling very stressed all the time.'” 

One reason for this disconnect is that stress doesn’t always feel bad and has many useful functions. Indeed, if we tried to avoid stress all the time, we wouldn’t take on difficult challenges either physically or mentally. Taking risks and stepping outside of our comfort zone requires that we feel stress. There is even a little-used word to describe that positive type of stress. It’s called “eustress.” Although having the same physiological markers as negative forms of stress, eustress helps us stay motivated, rise to the occasion, and take on challenges.

“We can overcome all sorts of demands that the environment places on us when we feel like we have the resources, energy, and the skills,” says Abdel-Ghaffar. “In those situations, our stress responses are going to be positive. What defines a positive stress response is that it feels good and is beneficial to us.”

Of course, stress can be both physically and mentally devastating as well. In some situations, we can get so flooded with anxiety that we become paralyzed and shut down. The triggers for those moments of toxic stress can sometimes be surprisingly small. An awkward social encounter or a harsh word from your boss can trigger surprisingly powerful stress reactions. 

Chronic stress is perhaps even more concerning as it can sneak up on you over an extended period and yet remain outside of your awareness. Chronic stress can weaken your immune system and increase your risk of obesity, heart disease, depression, and gastrointestinal problems. 

“Often we are not tuned in to what we’re feeling inside of our bodies and we can go a long time without recognizing that we’re really in this state of stress until things start breaking down,” says Abdel-Ghaffar. “Just because you do not consciously perceive stress doesn’t mean that it’s not there. In this case, out of sight may mean out of mind, but not out of body.” 

Creating a Life in Balance

In the end, the Stress Management Score isn’t about eliminating stress from one’s life. Instead, it is a tool to better understand your particular relationship to stress and a gateway to the many activities and behaviors that might help bring your Stress Management Score up and your life into greater balance. The Fitbit platform offers information, exercises, and programs to target whatever might be lowering your Stress Management Score. If your sleep is erratic, for example, you can use your smartwatch to start a nightly routine of winding down. Fitbit smartwatches can also be programmed not to wake you up during periods of deep sleep.

“Being mindfit means not only understanding the role stress plays in our health but actively taking steps to better manage it,” says Dr. Belen Lafon, staff algorithm scientist at Fitbit. “One tool to help you manage stress is through meditation to train attention or awareness and achieve emotional calm. It has been shown to ease symptoms of anxiety and depression, and may even reduce blood pressure.”

Using the electrodermal sensor on the watch during guided meditations included in the Fitbit app can provide instant feedback about how your body is reacting to the session. To start an EDA scan, you place your palm on the face of the watch, breathe, and keep still. You should experience fewer EDA responses as you get calmer through meditation. 

“We know COVID has upended people’s lives and created a lot of stress,” says Stacy Boise, product marketing manager at Fitbit. “With the disruption to our lives, a lot of people are thinking about stress. Having tools to manage it is important because change can also bring opportunity. We can form new habits and reset our priorities.”

Not allowing stress to control you is the first step towards using it as a tool for living fully. 

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