Remember the 1990s when mood rings were having a moment? Well, what’s old is new again, except with a high-tech twist: Instead of color-changing stones to indicate shifting emotions, today’s “modern mood rings” use physiological data to flag moments of stress, excitement, despair, and more.
You might even be wearing one right now: They may be literal rings, like the upcoming Happy Ring, watches like the Fitbit Sense 2 or Upmood, or wristbands like Feel. Their goal isn’t just to get you moving, like most wearables people have become familiar with, but to integrate emotional assessment and stress management into daily life. While those insights can help users be more aware of their mental health, experts warn they’re no panacea—even if some brands might attempt to sway you otherwise.
“Psychologists have been using this type of biofeedback since at least the 1950s,” psychophysiologist Nicole Prause told The Daily Beast. “The technology in many ways hasn’t changed, but the ability to send signals, record signals, and display those signals in pretty ways has gotten much better.”
Most of these devices track a wearer’s electrodermal activity (EDA)—or how the electrical properties of the skin change due to sweat gland activity, Prause explained. Sweat level is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, which are the network of nerves that activate your body’s fight or flight response. Real-time changes in sweat can indicate how your body is responding to stress.
It’s similar to how your heartbeat speeds up when you’re excited or anxious, and slows when you’re relaxed. That’s why other devices use your heart rate to track stress responses. “Numerous studies have reported a strong correlation between stress and heart rate variability, making it a well-established metric for mental health assessment,” machine learning engineer Ruixuan (Corey) Dai, co-author of a recent study on detecting mental disorders with wearables, told The Daily Beast.
For example, the Happy Ring feeds EDA data into an algorithm that helps identify a user’s emotional state, while the wristband Feel translates EDA, heart rate variability, and skin temperature data to quantify users’ emotional status; and Upmood, a wearable available as either a band or watch, tracks biometric patterns of the heart, then interprets it into emotional states.
However, the accuracy of the devices is still up for debate. A 2022 paper published in the journal JMIR Formative Research found that machine learning models identified depression with around 80 percent accuracy from how people interacted with their smartphone and their app usage. Dai suggested that “the accuracy of wearable devices in providing feedback on emotional and mental health is likely to be higher” because they’re worn continuously and use more sensors that provide more comprehensive physiological data.
“This abundance of data enables more effective monitoring and assessment of mental health,” Dai explained.
However, it’s not that simple—as most human emotions tend to be. “Emotion is defined along two axes: how pleasant the emotion is, from unpleasant to very pleasant; and how intense the emotion is, from not at all intense to very intense,” Prause explained. “These devices do absolutely nothing on the first axis, but they’ve got lots of game on the second axis.”
So while wearables can detect moments of physiological stress, they can’t tell you if that’s positive or negative. That’s up to you.
The Fitbit Sense 2 smartwatch’s algorithm, for example, combines heart rate, heart rate variability (changes in time interval between beats), skin temperature, and EDA—but the wearer has to fill out an assessment and “rate” their mood via one of the preset choices, ranging from very calm to very stressed in the partner app to assign the associated emotions.
On the Apple Watch—which doesn’t automatically track mood, but does track 24/7 heart rate and heart rate variability—you can use the digital crown to scroll through a range of emotions in order to log how you feel; and you can also add notes about why you feel that way.
“Context is absolutely essential to interpreting anything you get from an emotion-tracking wearable—they will not tell you anything about what emotion you’re having,” Prause said. “That’s up to you to interpret and understand.”
Case in point: If you start making out with your partner, that’s going to spike your heart rate in the same way an onset of anxiety would before making a presentation at work. One is a good stress response, the other not so good.
But that doesn’t make emotion-tracking devices any less valuable as a mental health tool. In fact, Dai’s research, presented at the International Conference on Internet-of-Things Design and Implementation in May 2023, touted “the feasibility and promise of using wearables to detect mental disorders.”
“By harnessing data from these devices, individuals can closely monitor changes in their lifestyle and identify deviations that may indicate potential mental health concerns,” Dai said. Plus, “doctors can leverage the wealth of data collected by wearables as a diagnostic resource for identifying and characterizing mental disorders, which can inform personalized mental health treatment strategies, thus improving the efficiency of the treatment.”
What these modern mood rings really do is increase self-awareness around mental status, identify triggers, and promote action. Over time, they can help you identify patterns that allow you to anticipate potential stress and plan ahead, and take action in ways that can mitigate future stress responses.
Say you notice you have a habit of ruminating, or dwelling on negative feelings, before you interact with a certain family member; once you’ve identified that pattern, you can learn how to decrease it. For example, Fitbit provides guided breathing and meditation sessions and Upmood generates actionable insights to help wearer’s boost their mood, or you can use interventions suggested by your own therapist—and see how your body reacts in real-time.
Just keep in mind that no piece of tech is a replacement for therapy or other mental health interventions. Just like buying a sleep tracker won’t guarantee a better night’s sleep, a wearable that tracks emotions won’t guarantee better emotions. It’s just a tool at the end of the day.
“There’s no empirically supported treatment that includes these devices,” Prause said. “But anything that’s going to help you engage in a practice that is known to be helpful is going to be useful.”
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