Sometimes an example comes along that just captures everything you want to say, yet makes it all so horribly funny, sad and real at the same time. Do culture, biology, the body, and technology all combine? Look no further than the Stress Eraser, a gizmo with the slogan, “Finally, Stress Relief that Actually Works.”
Do we really need this? The answer appears yes, at least according to Men’s Vogue. Here’s the lead-in: “Last fall, the American Psychological Association released a major study that told us what we already knew—21st-century America is the most stressed-out place on Earth. A third of American adults are living with ‘extreme stress,’ and nearly half believe that their stress levels have increased in the past five years.”
Michael Specter provides us that obligatory ethnographic moment:
“Dad,” my daughter pleaded not long ago, in a ticket line at JFK, where I had just begun to light into a representative of the airline that had accidentally deleted our reservations. “Please don’t have an airport fit,” she begged. Needless to say, I had the fit, and then spent the flight absorbing the shame of knowing that, thanks to me, my daughter actually has a category in her brain labeled “Airport Fits.” The episode stressed me out so badly that I went to a yoga class. No luck: All it managed to induce was an odd combination of humiliation, boredom, and pain.
But there is always hope in America, and Mr. Specter has found it:
I’ve always had faith in gadgets, so, seeking relief in technology, I bought a gizmo called the StressEraser. Yes, it sounds like something a man with a bad toupee would hawk on cable television at four in the morning. Guess what, though? It erased my stress. The little biofeedback machine, which is about the size of a BlackBerry, has an infrared fingertip sensor that monitors the way you breathe by translating pulse beats into waves that you can watch roll across the StressEraser’s LCD. (Just typing those words makes me calmer.) The machine essentially decodes various nerve signals—it’s complicated, but there are stimulating nerves that increase your heart rate and lead to faster breathing patterns, and pacifying nerves that do the opposite. We want the opposite. To get there, you simply slip your finger into the slot and monitor your breathing patterns on the LCD, counting softly as you shed your stress. The waves are supposed to come in gentle arcs; at first mine looked more like a series of daggers. By sounding a little beep when it’s time to exhale, the StressEraser teaches you how to calm yourself.
And nothing works better for the average American male than a little competitive reward (Stress the Video Game, I can see it now):
“You cannot fool the StressEraser—believe me, I’ve tried. If you worry about your mortgage, job, or weight, the machine will display a claustrophobic series of triangles packed tightly on top of one another. Now relax. Breathe. Concentrate on nothing. As soon as you ditch the bad vibes the triangles begin to space out—and so do you. Once you are breathing properly, the machine awards you a point. I try to rack up 100 points a day, which takes about 15 minutes, although one needn’t do it all at once.”
My favorite reader’s comment on the article:
“Breathe into a paper bag…they cost a couple of cents. The effect is the same – you watch your breathing moderate, your heart stops racing, and you don’t have one more expense to worry about. The drawback, of course, is that it doesn’t look as classy or high-tech as the Stress Eraser gadget.”