Learning to Control Stress : Hands on With Stressjam

Stress can be good.

According to WHO, depression is the third leading cause of disease globally, and stress is also one of the complaints that predicts depression and generates high costs worldwide. 36% of absenteeism at work is caused by work related stress and 17% of absenteeism of 25-35 year-olds has to do with occupational burnout. In the hectic work-life, globalised and highly connected world we live in today, it seems that stress is on the rise leading to disease, depression and burnouts. At CES 2018, VRFocus got hands-on with virtual reality (VR) videogame Stressjam, which apparently teaches users to become self aware of their personal stress levels to then make users control how they deal with stress.

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Before putting on your HTC Vive and playing Stressjam you are required to put a band around your waist, close to your heart in order to measure your heart rate. The band that comes with Stressjam specifically measures your heart rate variability. It is able to detect any extra rhythm from your normal heart rate, and is therefore able to measure whether the player is stressed or relaxed. Once that’s tight and secured, the PC will start giving you real time data on your heart rate rhythm.

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There’s an initial spike as data is being put into the system.

Once the data is being put in and the system recognises your heart rate rhythm, you put on the HTC Vive and take hold of the controllers. Stressjam is a colourful, island-like world where a little totem pole appears to give you guidance throughout the videogame. You will be asked for example to disable a bee’s nest, and this is when my heart rate went up. I was asked by Jozef Meerding, Chief Game Officer at Jamzone to become calm and I found myself standing there waiting to be calm. After breathing slower, I managed to calm down and disable the bees nest.

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The sound of loud bees near your ear, should be enough to frighten anybody.

The little totem pole guides me to a gate where I then have to pick up orbs that change colour depending on how I’m feeling. The orb turns from blue to red, I have to change it back to blue which is my calm state. Meerding says that I have to become calm once more and I find myself just standing there trying to think of something that makes me calm. “You’re thinking too much about it and becoming stressed you see,” Meerding explains. “Your breathing helps a lot,” he adds on a side note.

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I try and breath in deeply, think of the beach, the calm waves, the sun setting down over the ocean. “You’re still stressed.” he says, and I can’t really think of another place that would make me calmer. I look down at my orb which is still bright red and try again. Breathe, imagine a hammock from a palm tree, reading a book and gently swinging from side to side – it takes a while and a lot of effort, but it seems to do the trick as the orb suddenly turns blue. In panic I quickly throw it into one of the vases that hold the orb. I see another vase which is empty, another orb is needed. I turn around and have to click a button to collect an orb, “this time you have to make yourself stressed.” This wasn’t too hard, seeing as we are at CES, I know people are watching me, there’s people walking past me and there’s a cacophony of noise around me. I put the red orb in the right place and the gate opens.

With a sigh of relief I enter a cave like structure. I teleport around the cave and see that there is a lever which needs to be reached but is blocked by a gate. There is another orb which I need to put into somewhere, this time I have to become calm. I hold the orb and concentrate trying to become calm. I am aware that I am standing there, appearing to be or doing absolutely nothing in VR and that the clock is ticking for the interview, and all the other interviews that still need to be done – I take a deep breathe and try and block it out. It’s still hard, but easier than the bees nest to change my state of mind. Then it’s time to go – and i have to pull myself out of Stressjam.

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When I came out of Stressjam it felt very odd, it was like I had taken a yoga or meditation experience and suddenly the loud, noisy and busy world of CES came to life. The demo was so short, but it still definitely felt like it had an immediate effect on me. It would have been nice to get more data or information on how calm or stressed I was whilst I was in Stressjam, perhaps a meter on the side that slowly changed colour depending on where I was so I could have a visual representation of where I was in my mind. It will be very interesting to see if other sensors would be able to distinguish between stress, depression, anxiety, anger as well as other subtle emotions.

I was sad to leave the experience and wish I had tried it for longer. It will be very interesting to see the results of employees who manage to use this for a long duration and see their results. The potential to help youngsters who perhaps have anger-management problems would be great, or otherwise a great substitute for those who are seeking to meditate but find it difficult without truly immersing themselves. This could be a great start.

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