Technology often gets a bad rep for its impact on our mental health, and it’s not hard to see why – constantly attached to emails, social media, negativity in the news and blue light disruption to our sleep, it’s no wonder that rates of depression and anxiety are on the rise.
However as with a surgeon’s ability to wield a knife, it’s not just what we use, but how and why we use it. And the advent of ‘Wearable Tech‘ in the health and wellness industry offers us the chance to correct some of the imbalance. Seemingly a paradox, ‘active relaxation‘ is becoming increasingly important, as we hurry around constantly chasing the future – at the expense of our immune systems and fully appreciating the present.
While the advent of the COVID-19 lockdown has meant a welcome break for some, it’s brought to light many mental health frustrations for others, especially as mental health therapies including counselling and CBT were cancelled, with resources being diverted elsewhere. This has meant that people have been forced to take their care into their own hands, adopting a fully autonomous approach with insight, commitment, education, and occasionally alternative resources.
The latest development from the team at Sensate helps you take the time out to do this via Vagal Nerve Stimulation using bone conduction. The Vagus Nerve travels from our brain to our gut (establishing the gut-brain connection) and can control how we deal with stress. Specifically, it can helps us to ease out of ‘fight or flight’ mode and into a recovery-focused ‘rest and digest’.
I didn’t expect it but – this device really works!
Before getting into my personal experiences, here’s a little more on the how.
98% of their users have said that they felt better after just 10 minutes of using the Sensate in-clinic. Including improved blood pressure, reduced anxiety and depression, better stress management, feeling instantly relaxed and improved deep sleep.
Sensate cites benefits including improved heart rate variability, which is a key marker for health and longevity. It’s also a benefit of long term mediation which can take years of practice, or require specialist help, to achieve under normal circumstances.
The company upholds the notion that optimal physical and emotional resilience is the most fundamentally important quality for humans to survive, and thrive in the modern world. Self-regulation of the Autonomic Nervous System and Vagal Tone (which we will explore further later on), are the primary and most effective ways to achieve this resilience.
The Sensate kit includes a palm-sized, pebble-like device which is tied around your neck and held over your sternum. Holding down the gadget turns it on and allows it to connect to the free Sensate app on your phone via Bluetooth. This allows you to choose a range of different tracks, akin to binaural beats, as well as different lengths of meditation (10-30 minutes).
All you have to do is lie back, place the headphones and eye-mask on, and enjoy taking time out for yourself as the BioSelf Technology works its magic using pioneering resonance-based vagus nerve stimulation.
Founder Stefan Chmelik is a Traditional Herbal Physician who first started concocting potions and meditating before the age of 10. He has long been a fan of extended Vipassana Retreats and spent several years studying under Buddhist masters including Ajahn Sumedho, Abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery and High Tibetan Llamas.
Alchemy is the transformation of something basic or crude into something precious or sacred synergistically, and where the whole is more than the sum of the parts. That is what I like to try and do with food, and is what I try and impart to patients… I am involved in the ‘new anatomy’ and the renewed interest following the discovery of fascia as a sensory organ – Stefan Chmelik
There isn’t a limit on how many times a day you can use the device, with many customers claiming to feel immediate benefit from the first use, however it is recommended that sessions are kept to the set 10-30 minutes at a time. As with anything, it’s a deeply individual experience depending on personal preference.
The strength of the vibrations can be tailored, but feels a little like a cat purring on your chest. Whilst both fun and easy to use, the device is not a toy. It has been validated in-clinic and used to help those who suffer from PTSD, stress and anxiety, or other conditions, alleviate their symptoms and aid the process of self-management.
However it’s also something that’s useful for anyone, whether you’re simply looking to take more time out for yourself during the day, to reset and recharge, or trying to encourage healthy new habits and intentions over time.
Chronic stress is one of the biggest afflictions of the modern world, throwing the body out of homeostasis and contributing to serious diseases such as obesity, cancer, heart conditions, inflammation, and insomnia, if not self-managed correctly over time. Management consists of finding healthy ways to open up the release valve and intermittently easing the strain on the mind and body. This could be as simple as laughing with a friend, or going for a run.
As Kelly McGonigal highlights in her TED Talk ‘How To Make Stress Your Friend‘, it’s also important to factor in what we believe about this stress, and how we respond to it. We know prolonged stress is bad for us, which throws us into the vicious cycle of becoming stressed about being stressed! We also need to recognise that stress is useful to us when harnessed correctly – as a motivating driver that gets us into flow state.
Similar alternative practices such as the Wim Hof Method, the results of which have also been scientifically proven, equally aim to give the individual more access to their parasympathetic nervous system, through utilising cold immersion therapy, meditation, breath-work and movement.
The Autonomic Nervous System is responsible for regulating the vital physiological processes, such as heart rate, blood pressure, sweating and peristalsis, that sustain us constantly in the background. Improving vagal tone has a direct impact on increasing mental and physical resilience, by modifying Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which is now recognised as an acute metric for measuring resilience. We shall investigate this further below.
Improving Vagal Tone and HRV
In 1992, Stephen Porges developed the “Vagal Tone Index (V) – a measure of the nervous system modulation of heart rate activity via the vagus… [noting that] Heart rate patterns, like behavioural processes, are dependent on the status of the nervous system and the quality of neural feedback. Stress results in a disorganisation of the rhythmic structure of both behavior and autonomic state.”
In other words – chronic stress throws our natural homeostasis and ability to regulate ourselves out of balance, by affecting the feedback behaviour of our autonomic nervous system.
Heart Rate Variability
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a well-founded proxy for vagal tone. “Vagal tone is reflected in the amplitude of a heart rate rhythm associated with frequency of spontaneous breathing. This rhythmic process, respiratory sinus arrhythmia, has been observed and studied for more than 100 years. Speculations regarding the neural mechanisms were reported as early as 1910 when a relation between respiratory sinus arrhythmia and vagal tone was proposed by Hering.” (Hering HE. A functional test of heart vagi in man. Menschen München Med Wchnschr).
In other words – A symptom of the above (stress affecting our neural feedback and Vagal Tone – throwing our bodies out of balance) is an increase in our heart and breathing rate. If you’ve ever gone to bed and woken up with your heart pounding as a result of subconscious stress – you’ll know what this feels like!
Improving Vagal Tone and HRV
Reducing heart, breath and brain wave frequency rates are reliable non-invasive methods to stimulate HRV and Vagal Effect. Non-invasive stimulation of the vagus nerve has been found to be a consistent thread throughout the efficacy of various meditation, guided breathing, and yogic practices.
Specifically, the vagus nerve controls exhalation, so techniques that encourage prolonged exhalation result in higher levels of vagal activity and improved HRV. “The many functions of the [vagal nerve] have lead researchers and clinicians to develop electrical or behavioural intervention techniques for VN stimulation (VNS). These techniques are promising for clinical application and for improving cognitive performance.”
By improving HRV, there are countless health benefits to be gained. In their initial clinical validation process, Sensate recorded an increase in HRV of 86% for its users.
In other words – The thing that draws many centuries old practices of stress management together, including meditation, breath-work and yoga, is stimulation of the Vagus nerve and activation of the ‘Rest and Digest’ neural pathways.
This requires self-awareness: taking yourself our of your head by noticing when you are breathing short and sharp, and fuelling your ‘fight or flight’ systems. This is often easier said than done, but doing so allows us to actively draw ourselves back to our physiological processes and shift the focus towards breathing slowly, with a focus on long exhales in particular, to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and rebalance ourselves.
You do not require a device such as the Sensate to do this, but using one can act synergistically by manually adding to the effect, as well as reminding you of this practice, and training you to make this a habit. So people mean what they say when they tell you to just stop and – breathe!
How Sensate Maximises Vibro-Acoustic Potential
Sound Therapy: The Audio and Sub-audible Hz Range
It’s not just physical vibrations and breathing that can have an effect, sound also has a part to play in this holistic picture. Specific frequencies are known to induce the sought-after effect of calming physiological functions too. Ever pop on your favourite tune or a few classical pieces to make you feel instantly better? This is why Sensate combine their device with a few calming tracks, for synergistic effect:
Non-invasive VNS was found to be highly effective in a double-blind study of chronic migraine patients. The Sensate app offers unique stimulation through audio and subaudible frequencies. Engineered soundscapes (tracks) that are unique to Sensate combine audible sound via headphones or speakers with the vibration of tactile resonance (felt sound) transmitted via the Sensate device itself. These two elements synchronistically function to produce a harmonious experience.
Audible tones are those heard by human ears, and typically have frequencies that fall within a range of 20 Hz to 20 kHz. However, human beings are able to feel and detect sound waves that occur below these frequencies. Sound waves with frequencies below the audible range noted above are referred to as Infrasounds and Ultrasounds. At very low frequencies, sensory cells in the cochlea are stimulated by sounds at levels below those that are heard. In other words, it’s not just about the sounds we can audibly hear, but we’re also affected by the ranges above and below this, even though we can’t audibly detect them.
Infrasounds and ultrasounds can also be transmitted by way of vibrations or pulsations. The bio-potential effects of low-frequency acoustic waves on humans have significant prospective benefits and therapeutic potentials. Research has shown that “clearly specified wave frequencies and amplitudes such that… the amplification of low frequency sound waves with precisely controlled parameters (frequency, acoustic pressure level, exposure time)” can contribute to such significant results as “lowered activation level of the autonomic nervous system, or a notable change in the morphology of the electrocardiograph pattern.” Studies have shown that infrasonic exposure can also produce such beneficial effects as a decrease in blood pressure.
If Gong Baths and Crystal Bowl sessions are your favourite way to relax – then you will have already experienced some of these effects at play.
Olave Skille patented VibroAcoustic (VA) Therapy in the late 1980’s in Norway as a “means of using the energy of musical sound waves applied directly to the body to produce relaxing physiological as well as psychological effects.” Since its inception, studies have proven that the use of the physical sounds of music can be even more effective than other interactive forms of intervention.
How Sensate Maximises Vibro-Acoustic Potential
The positive outcomes of clinical vibroacoustic hardware can be miniaturised through the use of microelectronics (i.e. the benefits can be made more accessible via gadgets, than having a giant Gong in your house).
Sensate pairs this technology and convenience by utilising the body’s natural ability to conduct energy through bone conduction. As such, placing Sensate on your sternum allows your body to carry infrasound and audio tones through resonant frequencies and maximise their relaxing impact on your body.
Excitingly, this phenomenon is further optimised through the use of a biometric sensor and feedback loop that personalises the audible and sub-audible frequencies (as with the Sensate App).
Hearing And Feeling Sensates Effects
Sensate’s unique, patent-pending, technology has demonstrated significant capabilities in reducing symptom levels associated with stress and trauma, increasing resilience and shortening periods of symptomatic recovery from stress, and improving users’ sense of wellbeing.
By combining the research-backed therapeutic methodologies of ultrasound stimulation with the meaningful benefits of Vagus Nerve Stimulation, Sensate is well positioned at the forefront of the exciting intersection of these fields of research. Other research at this intersection has shown significant impact and promise in effective neuromodulation, decreased inflammatory response, heart rate variability, and stress resiliency.
A Few Research Results on Sensate’s Benefits
Whilst the Technology is so new as to leave research comparatively limited, it is not absent, and preliminary trials remain hugely promising. The relevant contextual research and literature is also already well-established.
97% improvement in Mood States Amongst Veterans with PTSD
Source: Tikrit Study, Iraq: The use of meditation to promote resilience in deployed medical personnel. Linda Gowenlock, Miami VA Hospital 2010
Effective for Military Caregivers
Use in the Care for the Caregivers programme at the world’s largest military hospital, Brooke Medical Centre, has five paramedics on permanent ‘compassion fatigue patrol‘ with
the power to require any member of medical staff to sit for a 15 minute a session of vibration sounds that trigger the brain to relax.
80% Of Sleep Programme Users Experience First Night Benefit
Source 1: Theracoustic EEG Study 2012. Source 2: Renfrew Centre (trauma and eating disorders).
87% Success Rate in a Drug Rehabilitation Setting
Source 1: Experience from Küsnacht, the world’s most exclusive clinic and NeuroNovo UK.
Source 2: Audio Therapy Significantly Attenuates Aberrant Mood in Residential Patient Addiction Treatment. Berg et al. J Addict Res Ther 2011, S3
Many people rely on invasive medical treatments and strong sedatives to cope with the symptoms of chronic depression, PTSD or anxiety. And while these are arguably life-saving for some, especially those in the throws of intensely acute episodes, over prolonged periods of time, they do have their side effects, withdrawal effects and can create dependency.
Holistic and non-invasive interventions such as meditation to increase awareness, breath-work to regulate physiological processes and devices such as the Sensate to bring music, breath, meditation and the act of permission to take time out together synergistically, offer promising results for learning to self-regulate and self-manage stress long term, using just the mind and body, instead of relying on the crutches of copious amounts of pills.
Effectively, the body is allowed the space to heal itself, by stimulating its own self-regulating mechanisms.
My Experience With the Sensate (2020)
Meditation is not a practice that’s confined to sitting for an hour a day – it’s a skill that can be used on the go. However using a device such as the Sensate does cultivate good habits and reinforces the need to not only take time out to actively focus on our mental and emotional health, but to make a ritual out of doing so.
The mind-body connection is well-established and yet under-utilised. Going back to our roots and looking at the impact of many centuries of ritual, ceremony, and rhythm, as opposed to simply routine, provides some of the answers as to what may be missing in our modern landscape.
As someone who knows full well of that there are many benefits to a regular meditation practice, it’s still something I struggle to regularly incorporate into my day. Using the Sensate makes it a multi-sensory experience that is fun, and therefore enjoyable to implement – making it more likely that I’ll actually do it.
I personally noticed benefits after just the first use. Doing a 30 minute session at the end of my day, post my usual run, I was able to sleep through the night without the regular episodes of awakening to a pounding heart and shortness of breath. Sometimes my stress is not something I’m consciously aware of, and it’s these nocturnal episodes that remind me I need to be actively engaging my parasympathetic nervous system more often, in order to restore balance.
For people that are used to feeling like we need to whip ourselves or engage in something vigorous and aggressive in order to see any kind of effect, being gentle with ourselves and taking 10 minutes out to breathe can feel like it won’t really offer any immediate, or strong enough benefit. The Sensate utilises the Psychology of this to some degree, by adopting a multi-pronged approach to tackle the issue from all angles, in a gentle and holistic way.
Holistic lifestyle interventions are just that – part of a larger whole, a network of complex factors and behaviours that we need to be conscious of when it comes to looking after all of our physical, emotional, mental and energetic health needs. The advent of Wearable Wellness Tech evidently offers much promising potential in assisting with that.
Update on the Sensate 2.0 new release 2022:
After losing my first Sensate while moving house, I had forgotten just how well it worked. Going through a period of transition, my nocturnal episodes returned – subconscious stress for me manifests as waking up during the night with a racing heart beat, amongst other things.
One name for this is ‘nocturnal panic attacks’ and it’s something that mainstream medicine does not fully understand or know how to treat, unless using potentially addictive sedatives and other strong medication.
After receiving the Sensate 2.0, I used it for 30 minutes before bed and while I still woke up during the night, it was just the once, and my heart rate was calm and slow – this was such an odd occurrence for me recently that I was shocked. I used the device again for 10 minutes and fell back asleep.
The quick and effective effects of this device, as well as the fun and synergistic way of using it (binaural beats, vibration and app-synced) show huge promise in improving my quality of life by increasing my ability to cope with any upcoming stresses and change, and I feel grateful to have it as a tool in the armament.
Human beings have made their chest vibrate and resonate since the first hominids sat in a circle thumping their chests and howling at the moon. Through song, chant, mantra, prayer, oming, breath, meditation and music, we have found ways to stimulate feelings of wellbeing, harmony and belonging – Stefan Chmelik