Measuring Stress More Precisely May Lead to Insight
> 10/26/2007 2:37:07 PM

Moderate stress can keep you prudently alert when facing crucial challenges, but excessive stress that carries into non-emergency hours can exact a terrible toll on mental and physical health. Elevated stress depresses the immune system and raises the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular problems. Realizing the danger, researchers have been working hard to help us monitor the amount of stress we are under as well as the causes of that stress.

Every year, the American Psychological Association (APA) conducts a stress survey to find out what is bothering American citizens and how they are coping. The 2007 report shows that one-third of citizens believe that they are suffering from severe stress. While this is not a significant change from previous years, there were some troubling shifts in the numbers. In one year, money and work rose from the biggest cause of stress for 59% of the population to the biggest cause for 75%. In addition, a little more than 50% of the respondents said that they were worried about rent. These high percentages show that macro-economic troubles are having a powerful impact on the mental well-being of the average citizen. Self-reports echoed scientific findings that tension can cause a wide range of problems. 73% attributed a mental symptom to stress and 77% attributed a physical symptom like fatigue, headache, or stomach ache.

The annual APA poll furthers the worthwhile goal of raising awareness of the impact of stress on the average American life, but it does not have the highest accuracy. For example, take the finding that 48% of Americans think that they are under greater stress now than five years ago. Spotty memory, along with the human propensity to idealize the past, could easily create the impression that the present is unusually stressful. One way to ensure more accurate reports is to use the eWatch developed at Carnegie Mellon. This relatively unobtrusive device collects both user-inputted and sensory information. It prompts wearers to evaluate their mood and stress level every 45 minutes of waking time and it can sense motion, light, skin temperature, and sound. It was originally designed as part of a class project and one can assume that the students got a good grade, because researchers have been eying the eWatch with interest. Professor Thomas Kamarck just received a $426,000 grant from the NIH to study stress level variance through time and location with the eWatch.       

We will have to wait four years for Professor Kamarck to complete his first eWatch project, but the results will probably be worth waiting for. Frequent evaluations tied to place and time should reveal new stress patterns. We will be able to study not only the average levels of stress, but also the peaks and valleys wherein we can gauge the reverberations of stressful and relaxing stimuli. It will be useful to know just how long our nerves stay frayed after being yelled at, or how many minutes the calm of yoga lingers.

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