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Stress Awareness Week and the evolving role of technology

As this week is International Stress Awareness Week and today is National Stress Awareness Day, it’s important to look at the role that technology plays as the cure and the cause of stress in modern societies. Today, technology is getting more pervasive and increasingly demands our attention, which risks disrupting our healthy and balanced lives.

Often, it’s the first thing we look at, speak to or hear in the morning and the last thing we scroll on at night. Despite well-documented concern that technology and our ‘always on’ culture is actually causing stress levels to rise, there’s now a surge of devices and innovations designed to improve or enhance our mental wellbeing and reduce modern day anxiety.

“Any new technology leads to concerns on the impact it will have on people’s lives,” said Dr Paul Kostek, a senior IEEE member and advisory systems engineer for Base2 Solutions.

“From the telephone, to the radio, to TV, then the computer and now the smartphone the same concerns have been expressed, people will disconnect and not engage with each other. However, all of these have ended up not just providing entertainment, but also ended up providing positive outcomes. Today the smartphone is one technology device that has really changed how we live. While some may consider it a negative, it has also become a means to help people relax and de-stress. Examples are playing a video game to transport yourself to another place, or downloading an app for meditation and using it during the day as a break from your computer and desk. A wearable fitness devices can also help with limiting stress by increasing your physical activity – I mean, how many steps did you do today?”

When it comes to social media, some may say that this absolutely increases the level of stress in our lives, but that’s not necessarily the case. Many people, can actually see distinct advantages from being connected, and past studies have shown that those who use Twitter, email and mobile photo sharing actually report being less stressed than those who do not. In fact, social sharing and viewing can expand horizons and increase escapism from the strains of everyday life.

“Sometimes perceived as a negative, social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram are great ways to stay connected or reconnect with friends and family,” continues Kostek.

“YouTube is also a great resource for learning new hobbies, cooking or practicing yoga or meditation. So, while tech can definitely take us away from the real-world it can also provide means to help us deal with the stress of careers, relationships and physical challenges.”

With our deepening mental health crisis, technology is now being used alongside professional mental health care to go beyond wellness and meditation apps and into deeper psychology.

“Technology offers new opportunities to address mental wellness,” said Professor Kevin Curran, senior IEEE member and professor of cybersecurity at Ulster University.

“We are seeing an increase in people experiencing common mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Technology has the advantage of being convenient, anonymous (if needed), lower cost, 24 hour, consistent and offers objective data collection. Healthcare professionals are beginning to use ‘chatbots’, because patients can generally feel more relaxed revealing personal details to an automated agent than to a clinician. Subot is a digitally enabled therapy bot in the UK which addresses male suicide. In fact, results from a recent study showed that participants were five times more likely to speak their thoughts when talking to the chatbot.”

“Similarly, digital phenotyping harnesses data gathered from mobile devices such as smartphones or wearable devices to learn about each person’s behaviour and state of health. Examples of data captured are the length of time someone spent looking at phone and the manner in which they ‘click and tap’,” continued Curran.

“The hope is to turn this into valuable clinical information. There were clinical trials in the US of the Beiwe app, involving patients with schizophrenia. Results showed that ‘digital markers’ could help recognise those at higher risk of relapse and intervene before the worsening of their illness. Another study in the US used a smartphone’s microphone to record random snippets of people’s talking and the ambient noise. Aspects which were analysed included tone of voice or length of a call. There are also self-management apps which allow users to set up medication reminders or log issues of stress, anxiety, or sleeping – or apps that help with cognitive remediation to help users learn new coping or thinking skills.”