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Turn On, Tune In, Chill Out

The modern way to relieve stress? Biofeedback via a digital relaxation gadget.

Looks like there's finally an alternative to that Lagavulin double-matured scotch in your best crystal highball to get over another stressful day of golf.

In what has got to be the wackiest new sprout on the consumer electronics bush, solid-state electronics, processors and light-emitting diodes have conjoined to create a new generation of digital chill-out pods, unwindos or personal relaxers -- whatever you want to call them.

These portable gadgets track your breathing, heart rate and other bodily functions to tell you -- get this -- whether you are in or out of the mellow zone.

The amazing part? In my testing at least, these gadgets actually work.

And they offer an alternative to structured meditation, cognitive therapy and in a pinch, even exercise.

I'm calling the trend as I see it: The digital age has finally merged with getting in touch with your inner self.

The Birth of Biofeedback

Relaxation technology got smeared by the biofeedback moniker in the 1970s.

Back then, biofeedback ranked right up there with aromatherapy and cosmic crystals for efficacy: something nut jobs in Santa Cruz did after a Grateful Dead concert.

But believers in the technology were undaunted.

Biofeedback backers sponsored a round of studies that showed that elucidating a user's own breath rate, heart rate, skin temperature and other metrics could be a powerful tool to manage stress.

"We as an industry got ourselves out of the woo-woo phase when we decided to treat

biofeedback as a science," says Thomas Cobb, co-founder of, a biofeedback company in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Still, early relaxation devices from the '80s and '90s tended to be expensive and complex.

These older biofeedback tools required professional supervision in controlled environments that were costly and, frankly, kind of spooky: Patients went to an office to be wired up with strange devices and then were asked to try to modify their breathing, heart rate and brain pattern to manage their anxiety

I don't know about you, but I am far too stressed out to find time in my day to go to an office, get hooked up to a bunch of wires, and do nothing but try to relax.

A Brave New World

Enter modern computer chips and electronic circuitry.

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Digital technologies boiled down complex biofeedback paraphernalia into portable and easy-to-use tools -- some of which are positively elegant.

Now, virtually anyone can carry a device that monitors heart rate and breathing. It can show users how they are reacting to stress, and even, with time, how to better manage life in this stressful shuffle on the mortal coil.

To get a sense of how powerful modern biofeedback tools are, I ordered up a fresh new

emwave personal stress reliever ($199) from HeartMath, one of the latest in portable digital relaxation aids.

The emwave is a slick metallic box about the size of a smallish iPod, with an oval red scanner on one side. I was instructed to place my thumb over the scanner; hold it there until the device found my pulse and breathing rate; and then wait about 30 seconds for the emwave to rate my level of stress.

I know it's probably not the case for everybody, but my thumb is not built to be calm: I had a heck of a time getting the emwave to pass judgment on my condition. (HeartMath does provide an ear lobe attachment that makes getting a good connection simpler.)

But after a bit of noodling, I finally got the sensor to pick up my heart and breath rate.

Then there was the single light-emitting-diode display. One's entire physical state -- yup, the whole shooting match -- is boiled down by the emwave to three levels of stress: Red is for not so good, blue for mellowish and green for zenlike.

The goal, then, is to get from your stressed-out "red" self down to your really calm "green" self -- which of course I had no idea how to do.

Though emwave does provide some software words of encouragement ("breathe through your heart,") you're basically left to struggle. But after a while, I got the hang of it, and guess what? It works.

Getting the emwave sensor to turn green requires a fascinating balance of trying to not try.

You breathe evenly and cleanly to start, which helps you to calm down, but the real green, best-rested levels comes when you sense your surrounding world in a different way. I know this is nutty, but I found that how I saw and felt things was almost separate from my evenly breathing body.

Regardless of my obvious limits in descriptive auto-metaphysics, for anyone who has chased a state of repose in other disciplines like yoga or meditation, emWave offers an interesting new riff on calming down.

Better yet, the emwave is easy to transport and not at all unattractive. Mine came in a nice blue finish in a decent leatherette case.

Now, some much needed disclaimers: Despite my positive experience with the emWave, biofeedback as a whole is still controversial.

Health insurance companies seem to take the concept as a personal insult, so claiming biofeedback as a legitimate health expense can be a challenge. New York psychologist Dr. Bruce Wilson is optimistic about biofeedback, but realistic.

"Biofeedback is part of the modern therapeutic arsenal," says Wilson. "But the long-term results can vary. So it's probably smart to check in with a professional at least a little bit before you go hog wild."

Still, the emwave is a real tool for stress management: a portable device that gives an unbiased assessment of your stress level in various situations, all in real time.

It's like an iPod into the soul.

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.