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.
Just Relax, and Let emwave Take Over
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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