BY DEBORAH PIETTE. Stress is sometimes referred to as the ‘disease of the 21st century’, resulting in an increasing prevalence of burn-out and depression. Smartphones on the other hand, have become the must have gadget of the 21st century, becoming real mini computers rather than just phones. What happens if you put those two trends together? That is exactly what I am investigating in my Ph. D. research.
Everyone experiences stress every once in a while. For instance when you are stuck in traffic and are about to be too late for an important meeting. However, stress is not always a bad thing. A healthy dose of stress can make you perform better by sharpening your senses and enhancing your concentration. On the other hand, experiencing too much stress can be detrimental to one’s health and well-being. This is true for both human beings and animals.
Previous studies have shown that 50% to 60% of all lost working days can be linked to work-related stress. This work-related stress often results in burn-out and depression, affecting approximately a fifth of the Belgian population. In addition, people that recover from such a burn-out or depression have a 50% to 90% chance of developing another burn-out or depression. This leads to a diminished quality of life but also comes along with large costs for society, for instance in the health care sector. Hence it is a very important field to perform research in, in order to find solutions and preventive measures.
Measuring stress using wearable technology
Monitoring stress in humans and animals is the core of my Ph. D. research. I started my Ph. D. a year ago at M3-BIORES, which stands for Measure, Model and Manage Bioresponses. Using available wearable technology we, at M3-BIORES, develop smart algorithms to automatically monitor the stress of humans and animals continuously and in real-time. An accelerometer, like the one built in your smartphone, is used to monitor physical activity. A heart rate belt or wrist watch measures the heart rate. By comparing the physical activity and the heart rate, we can determine whether or not the person/animal is experiencing stress. For example if we know that a person is sitting still but has a very high heart rate regardless, we know that this person is experiencing stress. Such as in the case of the person who is stuck in traffic and is too late for his important meeting.
We are developing an application for smartphones that warns the user when his or her stress profile starts to look too much like the stress profile of a person with burnout or depression
What to do with this information?
Measuring the stress of organisms is one thing, but what can we do with this information once we have it? As was mentioned earlier, stress is related to well-being and health. This means that we can use stress monitoring to automatically evaluate well-being and health. An example of this principle can be found in the human health sector. Currently I am working together with the psychiatric unit in Gasthuisberg (UPC KU Leuven) to monitor stress in patients with a burnout, depression or other stress-related disorders. The aim of the collaboration is to develop algorithms for smartphones that can predict relapse into stress related disorders such as depression or burnout. During the project we measure the stress in healthy subjects and subjects with a stress-related disorder. By comparing their stress response, we can learn how their stress profiles differ. For instance it is possible that healthy subjects show a slower increase in stress and a faster decrease in stress after a certain stressful event. Based on this information we develop an application for smartphones that warns the user when his or her stress profile starts to look too much like the stress profile of a person with burnout or depression. This way, the person can go to the doctor in time to prevent the burnout or depression from occurring and his or her quality of life and well-being can be improved.
Where are we now?
The collaboration with the psychiatric unit in Gasthuisberg is the result of my FWO scholarship which started in February this year (2016). In other words, the research is still in a very early stage. At this moment we are performing a pilot study in the stresslab of the psychiatric unit to evaluate which type of wearable technology gives us the best data quality, but also to optimise our stress monitoring methodology for the different stress-related disorders. A next phase will be to monitor the stress of individuals with stress-related disorders in real life situations.
Stress and stress-research have become a very hot research topic recently and that is a good thing, because more and more people are suffering from too much stress due to today’s very demanding society.
At M3-BIORES we are continuously improving our algorithms for stress monitoring and linking stress to well-being and health. Stress and stress-research have become a very hot research topic recently and that is a good thing, because more and more people are suffering from too much stress due to today’s very demanding society. I find it a very fascinating field and I am very passionate about the research we do at M3-BIORES. It gives a great deal of satisfaction knowing that your research might actually help people someday so that they can live a happier and healthier life.