Do “Stress Cancelling” Headsets Work?

Reviewing a wearable device that uses special vibrations to help you "stress less" and "sleep better"

Imagine we found a way to turn stress on and off instantly without side effects. 

Flick the switch on and you're Ken Lay sweating questions from the auditors. Flick the switch off and you're the Dalai Lama on vacation, baby.

If we discovered something like this, it would be pretty fucking cool. It might allow you to pursue a stressful career without exposing yourself to its negative side effects. It might allow you to have hard conversations with your partner without feeling overwhelmed and creating harmful negative loops that leave you both feeling worse. It might allow you to get on stage and give a presentation without feeling like you want to blow chunks. 

It might literally prevent fights, bankruptcies, divorces, and wars. Because after all, the stress response is kind of like the Martin Shkreli of emotions: no one likes it. No one can defend it. It's just not that useful in modern society.

It was built to get us out of short-term physical danger millions of years ago. It wasn't intended to help us deal delicately with discovering that the dishwasher wasn't emptied after dinner last night. But it engages in the same way as it might if we found a lion in the sink rather than last night's cookware.

If I had the option to turn down my stress response in certain situations, I'd definitely take it.

That's why I was intrigued by Cove.

Cove is a gray wearable device that you put on your head. It reminds me of an Xbox Live headset without the mic, the Doritos, or the smell of teenage despair. It costs $490. It says that it can help you "conquer stress" and "sleep better." 

In other words, it's trying to be the vision of the future we were just talking about. A way to turn down the stress response, to deal with the rigors of modern life better. And you don't need a pill, or therapy, or exercise, or meditation to do it—you just put the thing on your head and press a button and feel a little bit better.

Best of all, it says it's science-backed: "90% of Cove users experience better sleep and reduced stress after one month of daily use. These benefits have been validated by 4+ years of rigorous research, including independent studies at Brown University and the work of a leading researcher from Harvard Medical School."

90%! That's a big number. And I like the idea of rigorous independent research from Brown and Harvard.

After I came across it, I immediately wanted to find out more about this little device. But ye-gads! $490! That's a lot of dough. Fortunately, one of the best parts of being a Productivity Influencer(TM) is that the kind people at Cove were nice enough to send me one to review. 

It came messengered from somewhere in Brooklyn in a matching Cove tote bag (nice!). Its box was Apple-inspired—a Cove-grey and green cube made of thick, matte cardboard that was slightly smooshed on one side.

I separated the Cove from its packaging and turned it on by pressing a button on the side. I paired it with my phone. I put it on my head and sat on my couch. I rubbed my knuckles and flexed my jaw to work out the TMJ that keeps them clenched. 

The world wooshed and whirred around me as I pressed "Start" on the app. I prepared to conquer stress. Dalai Lama, eat your heart out!

.

The Cove works like this:

It has these large pads that sit flush with the bone-y part of your cranium right behind your ears. I don’t know what those things are called, probably something similar to whatever vaguely Latin words we’ve used to name the geological features on the dark side of the moon. The Deep Aural Mare, or the Montes Maxima Crania. Go ahead and touch your Montes Maxima Crania. Mine is a hard, solid bone that protrudes slightly toward the back of my ear. 

That’s where the pads of the Cove sit, and they lie dormant until you turn it on. When you do, the pads start to vibrate in pulses. You can dial the strength of the pulses up and down using the app—up so high that the Cove makes your skull feel like you’re at the dentist for a nasty bit of carpentry, or down so low that the vibrations are barely perceptible at all. So low and smooth that they’re like little drips of water falling every so often into a cool, still lake.

You might imagine that with the Cove, as with everything else important in life, more is more. That if you really want to turn your stress response off you need to crank the intensity up to 12. But according to the manufacturer's instructions, the opposite is actually true. 

The real way to dial in the Cove, and dial down your stress response, is to set the vibrations to be so low that you can barely feel them—but no lower. This is an intriguing thing to me, and it’s also sort of complicated to do.

I find that my sense of whether or not I can feel the vibrations varies very much based on context. If I’m looking to feel the vibrations, I’m more sensitive than if I’m concentrated on talking or doing some other task. 

Do I need to feel the vibrations in order for it to be working? If I felt them at one point, but don’t feel them now is that a problem?

I really want to do this the “right” way, but the manufacturer provides no guidance about these sorts of philosophical questions. So I keep the Cove at 2 or 3 and keep my fingers crossed.

.

I felt better when I tried it for the first time. The vibrations produced a weird sort of flushed feeling in my face—like a blush but pleasant—that felt oddly relaxing, and protective. My stress, fear, and anxiety felt like they were on hold temporarily. 

I felt a little sheepish at this. Am I just too suggestible? Or is this thing really on? But I also felt kind of awesome, like I had some weird quirky secret to a more relaxing life.

The first day, I wore it on calls, proudly showing off my Happiness Headset / personal cranium vibrator to skeptical onlookers. I explained the vibrations, and the way I was feeling. 

But after a while it got uncomfortable. The headset itself is like a pair of over ear headphones: when worn for long periods that places it presses start to get sore. And the vibrations themselves started to get old. Like that feeling you get as a kid after the 10th Warhead. The first 9 are exciting, and new, and fun—but by the 10th your teeth feel brittle, your tongue is flopped pleadingly at the bottom of your mouth, and you’re reconsidering some of your choices.

I took off my happiness headset and resolved to try to understand what was going on. If this thing does work, why might that be? And if it doesn’t, why would I feel this way?

.

The science behind the Cove is simple:


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