Heart Rate Tracking Cues You into Your Stress Levels

A woman checks her fitness watch while walking in the woods.
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Keeping track of your heart rate can put you more in touch with your stress levels, a new study suggests.

Researchers in the Netherlands found that men and women who were given data from a heart rate monitor as they did various tasks wound up giving more accurate estimates of their own stress levels, compared with people who were not given heart rate data.

The study shows that "self-tracking of physiology may help people to become more aware of their body's response to stress," said Elisabeth van Dijk, the study's lead author and a doctoral candidate at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

But van Dijk also cautioned that while stress awareness can be a good thing for some people, it may have negative consequences for others.

The tracking trend

People have been increasingly turning to wearable devices and mobile sensors to obtain physiological feedback related to their health. The trend includes devices like heart rate monitors that measure exertion levels while working out, and also apps that collect and sometimes analyze physiological data — for example, blood pressure readings.

But whether getting all this feedback from these technological tools is a good idea, or could be useful in increasing people's awareness of stress or how to manage it, remains to be seen. In the study, published online June 4 in the journal BioMed Research International, the researchers examined these questions by evaluating 66 men and women ages 18 to 67.

The participants were asked to complete 20 1-minute tasks on a computer. Half of the tasks were designed to be stressful — people were given math problems to do in their head, or lists of words to memorize. The other half of the tasks were relaxing, such as listening to jazz music or reliving a happy memory. As they did each task and rated how stressed they felt when it was done, some people saw digital measures of their heart rate flash on the screen, whereas another group did not. [9 Healthy Habits You Can Do in 1 Minute (Or Less)]

Personality matters

The findings showed that people paid close attention to the readouts given by the heart rate tracker: Participants seemed to rely on this information as a measure of how stressed they were feeling more than on their own internally perceived levels of stress, the researchers said.

For example, during the stressful tasks, the people who were given the heart rate data rated their stress as higher than those not given the heart rate data. And during the relaxing tasks, the people given the heart rate data tended to rate their stress levels as lower than those not given the data.

"This might mean that self-tracking of physiology makes people listen more to their bodies," van Dijk told Live Science. But it also could mean that people just believe the feedback they get, and they don't become more aware of their bodies at all, she said.

It also turns out that personality traits may play a role in how much a person gets out of health tracking: The information can help some people feel more relaxed, while it might make others feel more stressed, the researchers found. The difference may lie in people's levels of neuroticism, which is the tendency to have a negative emotional state.

The researchers found that people who scored high on a test designed to measure neuroticism tended to feel less stressed when they received feedback on their physiology.

"Initially, it was surprising to find that physiology feedback may actually have a positive effect on people who score high on neuroticism," van Dijk said.

But the researchers suspect that for people who have neurotic tendencies, the tracking devices might show them that the stress levels in their bodies are actually quite stable, which they consider good news, van Dijk said. [11 Tips to Lower Stress]

In contrast, those who scored high on a test of anxiety levels seemed to become more stressed after seeing this information. For anxious types or worriers, tracking devices might have a negative effect, van Dijk said.

Being hooked up to feedback devices may make people who are anxious focus more intently on body signals they may consider frightening, such as an elevated heart rate or increased sweating, which stresses them out even more.

Because self-tracking of physiology may have very different effects on different people, the researchers are currently investigating how self-tracking systems can be designed to support body awareness in a positive way, without encouraging additional worrying and rumination, van Dijk said.

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Live Science Contributor

Cari Nierenberg has been writing about health and wellness topics for online news outlets and print publications for more than two decades. Her work has been published by Live Science, The Washington Post, WebMD, Scientific American, among others. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from Cornell University and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Communication from Boston University.