Stress and Your Smart Phone

Wed, 10 Oct. 2012 - 1:19 a.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

Koyaanisqatsi—a native American word meaning “life out of balance”—is an idea that’s been around for centuries. On June 1 of this year, however, a new smart phone application launched that is designed to let you know exactly when you are “out.”

Stress matters

It’s certainly possible to envision that knowing how stressed you are might save your life. The stats on workplace stress, for example, are grim; people with jobs that have high demand but little control are 40% more likely to suffer myocardial infarction, heart disease, or the need for coronary artery surgery. 

There are other, less dire consequences of stress that nevertheless make it the bugbear of our time. For one thing, stress leads to GI problems. The gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion. Feelings of anger, sadness, anxiety, or for that matter elation can all trigger physiological gut responses. 

Therefore, the brain has a direct effect on the stomach. To use a non-stress-related example, the very thought of eating can release the stomach’s juices before food gets there. And the reverse is true too: a troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. A person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. 

When a person experiences gastrointestinal upset with no obvious physical cause, that cause is very often stress. Some of the other unpleasant physical ramifications of stress include: 

  •  Stiff or tense muscles, especially in the neck and shoulders
  •  Headaches
  •  Sleep problems
  •  Shakiness or tremors
  •  Recent loss of interest in sex
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Restlessness

An app to the rescue?

The new free stress monitoring app, called GPS for the Soul, works by allowing the user to tap their phone’s sensor to show measures of current stress levels, including heart rate. From there, the app would try and counter your stress by tailoring to your personal needs for balance. This can mean showing you specific and personal soothing images (like pictures of a beloved pet) to displaying breathing exercises you can try to help calm you down.

GPS for the Soul was developed by The Huffington Post and the tech companies bLife and HeartMath, and its editorial director, educational psychologist Russell Bishop, writes on HuffPost, “Just as a GPS system in a car helps recalculate your route, GPS for the Soul will help you notice when you've gone off-course. And it will provide instant, on-demand feedback to help you course-correct. Since no one knows better than you what helps you de-stress and find your balance, you will be able to customize that feedback, programming the app to send you just what you need to course-correct. It might be…relaxing music, … guided meditations, or yoga instructions.” The idea is to raise your stress-level awareness so you can do something about it. And moving pictures aside, what else should you do when you’re stressed and out of balance?

Move your body—away from stress

As noted above, the physical and cognitive-emotional aspects of stress are tied together intimately, and so the connection between regular exercise and the reduction of stress and depression symptoms makes sense and is well established. Physical activity remains one of the most powerful weapons against stress in the arsenal. For one thing, it automatically promotes some of the other stress-relieving techniques: better sleep, exposure to sunlight, muscle relaxation, and deep breathing. Exercise raises serotonin levels and lowers the production of stress hormones like cortisol. 

And as your waistline shrinks and your strength and stamina increase, your self image improves. In one study the difference between actual and desired body weight was a stronger predictor than was BMI of both mental and physical health. In women, the desire to lose weight was even more predictive of unhealthy days than among men.

Five stressors you can control

  1. Apply time management principles. Delegate or discard unnecessary tasks, and map out your day in segments to accommodate the ones that remain important. If you tend to be overly optimistic about travel time, consistently give yourself an extra 15 minutes or more to get to your destinations. If lateness stems from dragging your heels, consider the underlying issue. Are you anxious about what will happen after you get to work or to a social event, for example? Or maybe you’re trying to jam too many tasks into too little time.
  2. Consider the weight of cognitive distortions. Are you magnifying a problem and leaping to conclusions, or perhaps applying emotional reasoning? Take the time to stop, breathe, reflect, and choose.
  3. Don’t go it alone. If the problem is work, talk to a co-worker or boss. Ask a knowledgeable friend. Turn to the internet, books, or classes—the information easily within reach may surprise you.
  4. Look for deserved indulgences. Try massage, a hot bath, or a body scan. Done regularly, just like exercise, these small pleasures can ward off stress.
  5. Practice guilt-free conflict resolution. State your needs or distress directly, avoiding “you always” or “you never” irrationalities. Say, “I would really appreciate it if you could _____.” “I need some help setting priorities. What needs to be done first and what should I tackle later?” If conflicts are a significant source of distress for you, consider taking a class on assertiveness training.

The ironic sixth stressor

As we reported in the Nov./Dec. issue last year, studies are beginning to reveal that the key predictor of happiness is time affluence. This means, rather than the most powerful people or the wealthiest, people who spend lots of quality time with friends and loved ones report the highest levels of life satisfaction. Alas, the very devices and technological advances that empower can interfere. Checking email constantly, always being ready to take that call, or bringing work home with you on your laptop all can get in the way. To help preserve quality time with others, experts advise setting up technology-free zones—e.g., no texting at the dinner table.

In other words, if you’re running the new stress monitoring app, your smart phone may soon be telling you to turn off your smart phone.


Huffington Post, April 16, 2012, “Soul-Talk: Got Stress? Wake Up to Your Soul,”by Russell Bishop,


Harvard Health Beat, April, 2012, “10 Simple Steps to Help De-stress,”; Feb. 2012, “The Gut-Brain Connection,”


Am. J. Public Health, 2008, Vol. 98, No. 3, pp. 501–506cNPR, Pat Morrison, April 20, 2012,


(RUNNING & FITNEWS® May / June 2012 • Volume 30, Number 3)

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