Stress sensors: a magic bullet in the battle against depression, chronic stress and burnouts?

Today, one in seven Belgians is struggling with depression. Most of them are between the ages of 30 and 45. For women, the figure is as high as one in four. Are we working harder than our grandparents did? And is greater pressure at work causing this increase in depressions and burnouts?


Research by sociologists has shown that one of the most important causes is our role in society – which is less clearly defined than in the past. And it is this freedom that leads to stress. Many patients who feel depressed or cannot cope – but do not really know why – are often suffering from chronic stress as a result of a whole array of stress factors (such as combining a career with young children, renovation work at home, a sick relative, etc.).

When do you experience stress?

You know the signs: clammy hands, and you feel your heartbeat going faster. But can we actually measure stress, and chronic stress in particular?


In stressful situations, the concentration of cortisol in our blood increases. Cortisol is also called the ‘stress hormone’, as it is released in response to every form of stress – both physical and psychological. Furthermore, stress has an impact on our autonomic nervous system (heart rhythm, heart rhythm variability, skin temperature, skin conductance and respiratory rate).


While the amount of cortisol in our blood can only be measured by taking blood samples, it is much easier to monitor the autonomic nervous system (ANS) parameters in real time, especially thanks to imec technology.

Will everyone be wearing a stress sensor soon?

The compact, wireless imec sensors that measure ANS parameters (heart rhythm, heart rhythm variability, skin temperature, skin conductance and respiratory rate) have great potential for research into stress, depression and burnouts.


The sensors have been designed for long-term use, and to monitor patients in their daily lives. Yet, one of the remaining challenges is that the body’s response to stress is something very personal. For one person, stress leads to an increased heart rhythm, while another person experiences a rising skin temperature. So there is still an enormous knowledge gap when it comes to how we should interpret the sensor data. But if engineers can adjust the sensors a little better, mathematicians tighten up the algorithms and psychiatrists improve the interpretation of the data, a visit to the doctors in 5 to 10 years' time might be completely different to how it is today.

Your stress wristband as a personal coach

In the future, if your doctor suspects that you are suffering from chronic stress, you might be given a stress wristband that continuously measures your ANS parameters. The data will be sent to the cloud where your doctor can consult them remotely.


At your next appointment, the doctor can use those data to inform the consultation and treatment. What’s more, your smartphone will provide you with continuous feedback as well about how stressed you are, alongside tips to improve your (mental) health.


But there is also a serious lack of knowledge about which feedback will work for you personally in a given situation. For example, meditating during an important meeting is not going to be easy. And anyway, meditating might just stress you out…


Within the imec.ichange program, imec is working with various teams to make us more resilient to stress. Who knows, perhaps in 20 years' time our grandchildren will be staring at us open-mouthed when we tell them what we were all stressed out about…


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