Like many of us, I’ve tried a laundry list of coping mechanisms during times when stress runs high. I’ve downloaded Headspace and meditated, trying to focus on my breath instead of my to-do list. I’ve done yoga and gone to fitness classes with chanting and shouting. I’ve taken bubble baths and spent the day at a spa where Wi-Fi wasn’t allowed. I’ve coped with alcohol, Netflix, and chocolate cupcakes.
Has any of it worked? Sure—at least momentarily. But, like most Americans, especially now, I certainly do not live a stress-free life. So when I heard about Cove ($490) “the first wearable device with stress-canceling technology,” it caught my attention.
Stress-centric wearables are becoming increasingly more popular, to the extent that Well+Good named them a 2021 Wellness Trend. We track our steps and sleep; why not also track something that’s proven to be extremely detrimental to both mental and physical health? Stress can cause breakouts, digestive problems, and even mess with your menstrual cycle. Prolonged stress could even potentially cause cognitive impairment.
Here’s how Cove promises to help: The device, which wraps around the back of the head, silently vibrates behind the ears to soothe the wearer. The vibrational frequency and intensity were designed to stimulate the nerve endings of the skin, activating the brain’s posterior insular cortex (which is associated with a variety of functions, including representing feelings and emotions and self-awareness) to temper stress.
The price, however, is (ironically) a bit anxiety-inducing. At almost $500, canceling stress using the latest science and technology doesn’t come cheap—especially when you consider that it only has this one sole function. An Apple watch, for example, is essentially a Swiss Army knife of health-improving solutions. Fortunately, I know friends in high places (or at least at Public Relations firms) and they sent me one for free. Once it arrived in the mail, I committed to trying Cove for three weeks and then writing about it here. What follows is an honest recap of my experience as well as insight from Francois Kress, CEO and co-founder of Feelmore Labs, Cove’s parent company.
My Cove device arrived during the dead zone between Christmas and New Year’s on a surprisingly busy day loaded with Zoom calls. “I hope this thing doesn’t take long to set up,” I thought to myself as I opened the box between meetings. It didn’t. As someone who gets overwhelmed with tech easily, Cove doesn’t require any assembly and only took a couple of minutes to set up, which entailed downloading an app and making sure the device fit my head okay. Considering the whole point of its existence is to keep stress away, this was something I appreciated.
I gave it a try for the first time between calls by wrapping it around the back of my head and hooking the sides over my ears. It’s recommended to wear Cove for 20 minutes twice a day and you can continue with your normal activities as you do so. With this in mind, I fired it up (via the app) and started to feel a very faint vibration behind my ears. The vibrations were so gentle I could hardly feel them, similar in sensation to a ladybug tickling your arm. There were times during the 20 minutes that I felt nothing at all. This left me skeptical. How could something you hardly even feel cancel stress?
Despite my reservations, I remained committed, doing one session while moving through my workdays and the second session at night as I read before going to bed. I liked that Cove allowed me to multitask as opposed to meditation where I had to put everything else on pause. I wore Cove while answering emails and even while on the phone. From the front, you can hardly see the device, so I even wore it to a Zoom meeting one day. Still, a week and a half into using the device, I didn’t notice feeling any less stress. Was it even working?
On one particular work day, I could feel my anxiety start to build when I was assigned an article on a short deadline on an already busy day. I decided to do a Cove session to see if it would help me calm down, but I didn’t notice a difference after the 20-minute session. When that didn’t work, I decided to go for a 20-minute walk outside. Afterwards, I felt much less stressed. I was half thankful, half annoyed. That free, short walk helped me more than this $490 device, I thought.
The next day I woke up with morning anxiety, my mind racing at the thought of everything I had to get done that day. I put my Cove device on and did a session while I put on my makeup, made breakfast, and started my workday. I did feel noticeably less stressed when the session was up, but it also could have been because I was getting into the grove of my day. Once again, I wondered how to know if the device was actually working.
The science behind Cove
Two weeks into my experiment it was time for my Zoom call with Kress. I was looking forward to checking in with him to make sure I was using the device correctly and learning more about the science. “I’m actually glad you aren’t saying you’ve noticed a ‘revolutionary’ difference because it’s not supposed to work that way,” Kress told me, after reassuring me that I was using the device correctly.
“We started working on this device four years ago, inspired by scientific evidence showing that you can impact the nervous system by vibrating on the skin,” Kress says. Over the course of the next few years, Kress and his team conducted experiments on thousands of people to pinpoint what vibrational frequency, intensity, and placement on the body worked the best. The end result, he says, is a vibrational sensation behind the ears linked to a deep part of the brain that controls how anxious (or not) someone feels.
“This very slow, very low-pressure motion puts us in a state of trust and rest,” Kress says. “It’s a known pathway to the deep part of the brain, which is pre-conscious. It’s something you may hardly even feel in the moment but is working behind the scenes in the brain to modulate your stress and anxiety.” The reason why Kress says behind the ears is the best placement for the vibrations is because it’s close in proximity to the vagus nerve, which plays a role in regulating the body’s fight-or-flight response (a key part of our stress response).
Then I asked Kress my big question: When could I expect to notice a difference in how I was feeling? Based on their experiments, he says this varies person-to-person, depending in part on how stressed someone is. “If you’re a pretty even-keeled person, you aren’t going to notice a difference in the short-term as much as someone who feels chronically anxious,” he says. “Similarly, many people report that using Cove before going to bed helps them sleep at night, but if you are someone who doesn’t have sleep problems, you won’t notice this.” To his point, I’m one of the few people who have no problems sleeping, so it makes sense I didn’t notice a difference in how I slept.
But Kress also says that if someone uses Cove every day, they should notice a difference in how they feel after wearing the device within a month. “With neuroscience, it’s always hard to give a definitive answer or timeline, but most people will notice a difference in how well they sleep and how they respond to stress,” he says. “This is when we really believe the connections in your brain to help you be more resilient are formed, and it’s something we have actually seen happen through brain imaging MRI studies. Your brain actually builds new connections as you wear the device more frequently.”
These connections, Kress says, are similar to what scientists have seen related to meditating. “But a lot of people try to meditate and don’t actually achieve this, which is why Cove can be helpful,” he says, adding that using Cove and meditating can also be used in tandem. And he still recommends doing things in the moment to help relieve stress, like the mid-day walk I went on. “It’s actually best to use Cove about half an hour before a stressful event you’re anticipating,” he says. This is because it’s meant to change your reaction to stress, not necessarily calm the body down in the heat of the moment.
The final verdict
I continued using Cove for another week after my conversation with Kress. Despite not noticing a difference in how I was feeling, I still believed it was actually, as Kress says, working “behind the scenes.” Again, I am someone who is not a high-powered CEO, front-line worker, or a parent—and I already sleep great. Someone with higher levels of stress in their life may notice a difference more than me.
After looking into the science behind how Cove works, I (personally) think there’s something to it. There are plenty of other wellness habits that are part of my routine that I believe do “something” that I don’t necessarily notice in the moment. Like taking a bacopa supplement every day to protect my brain against cognitive decline, Cove is more in the preventative realm; over time, it’s meant to make stressful events feel less anxiety-inducing. My school of thought is that just because something doesn’t “feel” like it’s working doesn’t mean it isn’t. And hey, it certainly can’t hurt.
What using Cove has also taught me is that there are no shortcuts to managing stress. You can’t strap on a head device while doing nothing else to work through your anxieties and expect all your stress to melt away. I still need my afternoon walks when the length of my to-do list causes my heart to race. Can Cove “cancel stress”? No, I don’t think so. But it just might make your reaction to stressful events a little easier to manage.
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