You’re giving a presentation at work, one that you’ve spent months preparing for. When you get to the front of the conference room and begin, you find the hours of painstaking preparation are slipping right out of your head - and as you make this realization, you begin to panic and the words you need are stuck in your throat: a rapid downward spiral of intense stress.
You feel the heat rise in your cheeks as your internal body temperature starts to rise, and you pray that your sweat doesn’t stain your shirt. Your breathing quickens, and your heart starts to race. You’re in fight-or-flight mode, a survival skill passed on from your ancestors that is triggered when your sympathetic nervous system utilizes and activates the release of norepinephrine in your body.
"In times of stress, a lot of physiological changes occur within the body: your hormone levels spike, your blood pressure changes, you experience pupil dilation, and so on. But you can’t control those changes."
When you find youself in a stressful situation, there are a number of physiological changes that happen in your body in a very short period of time. For your ancestors, these physiological responses kept them alive as they could quickly determine the easiest path to survival in a hazardous situation. Today, the flight-or-fight response is still triggered by stressful events, but most of these situations are not life threatening - yet there is still little you can do to control the intense feeling of panic that overtakes your body and mind when it does happen.
Behavior change is a key factor of our health and well-being: whether through intense fight-or-flight scenarios such as the one described above, or a moderate yet consistent feeling of stress that lasts for long durations of time. The fact that behavior and neurological functions cause wear and tear to your body and mind is well-understood, explains Neema Moraveji, co-founder of Spire, an innovative mindfulness tracking technology. What is less understood, however, is how to manage these behavioral habits in a way that maximizes our mental and physical health.
“In times of stress, a lot of physiological changes occur within the body: your hormone levels spike, your blood pressure changes, you experience pupil dilation, and so on. But you can’t control those changes. However, there is one bio-indicator that a person is able to control, and that is respiration,” Moraveji explains.
Your breathing patterns affect your physiological well-being in countless ways, the most important of which being your heart rate and heart rhythm. Heart rate variability (the way that your heart rate changes from beat to beat) is a powerful indicator of stress and mental state of mind. When you inhale, your heart rate increases, and when you exhale your heart rate decreases - a change marker for stress. Another significant biosignal connected to respiration occurs in the brain, particularly in the medulla where blood oxygen levels are detected and ‘converted’ into emotions. The way we breathe directly affects blood chemistry, which affects the emotions your brain signals.
With this key insight, Moraveji and his team of scientists and researchers left the lab to create a company that could help people harness the power of breathing to manage behaviors such as stress, and the accompanying physiological changes. There are many ways in which it is advantageous to have control over your breathing - from everyday workplace stress to chronic pain management - and the technology at Spire is designed specifically to help users take control of their respiration and in doing so, give them the ability to moderate their overall mental and physiological well-being.
How does this technology work?
Spire is a discreet, non-invasive wearable device designed with the user in mind. The sweat and water-resistant wearable senses and records your breathing patterns and activity throughout the day, and has a number of customizable vibrational patterns that gently alert the user of their different breathing patterns - for example, if the user has gone 30 minutes without taking a deep breath, the device will vibrate to gently remind him or her to take a moment to breath deeply and re-align their breathing patterns. The device is also wirelessly connected to the Spire smartphone app, which analyzes activity and breathing in real time and contextualizes the data to provide users with valuable insights to be more mindful about their daily stress management.
The data analysis is an extremely helpful tool for users, as it collects data from the wearable and then drills down to help users connect their behaviors to specific moments in their lives: for example, the app will pull your location, events from your calendar, and even photos from your camera roll into the app so that users can see the full picture of what they were doing at a particular moment of stress or relaxation. In the ‘Discovery’ section of the Spire app, people can learn from their breathing and activity patterns to make use of the data points the device collects in a way that helps them improves their stress management and behavioral patterns. The learning section of the app assists users with methods of using their breath more effectively, which is indeed a skill that can be forgotten, learned, and re-learned. This section of the app allows users to view their breathing in real time and listen to guidance cues so they can train themselves to maintain a state of calm.
"It is a critical life skill to be able to modulate your own nervous system through your breath so that you can be more in control of your brain responses."
The corporate culture at Spire reflects the philosophy of mindfulness that their product espouses. At any hardworking startup, you’ll find people who are super engaged with what they are doing, but high stress levels are usually a big factor of that. At Spire, you’ll find a different kind of engagement: they emphasize employees being able to control their stress and focus so it can be a better work environment. They make a point of the importance of communication, integrity, and living your life with awareness, and this is a very unique part of their startup culture. The founders of the company encourage their team to grow and learn, just as the users of their product, and the entire heart of the company gives both employees and users the tools they need to move incrementally towards excellence.
As the Spire team continues to improve their product, the anecdotal evidence from those who are using the wearable device speaks for itself. In some ways, Spire seems almost as a miracle product for many: users have reported the myriad ways the breathing regulation tool has improved their lives, from improved mental health and peer relationships, to even allowing some users to lower their medications and better manage chronic pain.
Moraveji uses a powerful metaphor to explain how breathing and stress management can effectively improve your overall well-being: “People are usually living their lives with the gas pedal down or with the brake pedal down, and what gets lost is the sense of coasting and how you are damaging your engine - meaning your body - over time. With managing your breath, you can accelerate your stress levels when you must, but only as an appropriate response. It is a critical life skill to be able to modulate your own nervous system through your breath so that you can be more in control of your brain responses.”
Ultimately Spire does just this: it gives users a deeper understanding of how their mental state of being affects their health, and puts them back in the driver's seat of their life so they can live with control of these mental and physiological factors.
Aptly named, Enclothed Cognition is the official Medelita blog for medical professionals interested in topics relevant to a discerning and inquisitive audience. Medelita was founded by a licensed clinician who felt strongly about the connection between focus, poise and appearance.