In 2005, at age 32, Dave Asprey realized he was literally working himself to death. At the time, he served as the director of product management at Netscaler, a fast-growing Silicon Valley startup that was being acquired by Citrix. Asprey was smack in the middle of the acquisition, working on integrating Netscaler's product line into Citrix's. He worked 60 hours a week, five days per week, checked email on weekends, and travelled at least once a month to Florida from California.
Asprey didn't mind his jet-set life. In fact, he thrived off of it (or so he thought). His hard-charging work ethic was part of his long-term goal of one day becoming one of Silicon Valley's tech titans, and by the time he reached his early 30s, it appeared to be paying off. Already, he had co-founded the professional services group at Exodus Communications, which grew to 1,500 employees and created one of the first working instances of cloud computing while running the Web and Internet Engineering program at UC Santa Cruz.
Asprey was thrilled with his performance and career growth, but something nagged at him: The pressure to keep up with work, technology, the Internet and email was beginning to overwhelm him.
"As the Internet expanded, I started to get more and more stressed because I couldn't keep up," he says. "When email went down, I felt like I was dying because I couldn't get connected."
Burnt out and between jobs, Asprey travelled for three months through China, Nepal and Tibet.
"Like a good IT guy, I brought a three-pound laptop with me to stay connected," says Asprey. "When I got to remote parts of China, I was getting so much spam that it came in faster than I could download my email. Spam forced me to not be connected for a couple of months."
Asprey noticed a distinct change in himself after cutting off his technology ties. He says he felt much calmer and more alert. But as soon as he returned to Silicon Valley, so too did his stress.
Asprey sought medical help. He took a saliva test to identify stress hormone levels in his body. His score on the test was 46—nearly four times the level at which people begin to show signs of stress, such as a reduced ability to focus and difficulty sleeping.
Brain imaging revealed that Asprey was under so much stress that his prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that performs logic, had shut down.
The images on Asprey's brain scan were not the only physiological signs of his stress. He experienced regular headaches, upper back pain and a clenched jaw. He was often bone tired and was growing increasingly forgetful and irritable.
"Even though I was high-performing, I could tell it was costing me," says Asprey. "The cost here might have been my life."
The Stress Epidemic
The impact of stress on our health is well documented. Among the problems created by chronic stress: It makes us more susceptible to getting sick because it attacks our immune system; it causes high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)—both of which increase our risk of heart attack; and it can also leads to ulcers. According to the American Institute of Stress, 90 percent of all illnesses are stress-related.
Where does all this stress come from? For many American adults, it stems from their jobs.
In 2009, 69 percent of employees polled by the American Psychological Association reported that work was a significant source of stress. 41 percent of employees said they typically feel stressed out during the work day. Half of respondents (51 percent) said stress impaired their productivity at work.
IT professionals at all career levels report experiencing unprecedented amounts of work-related stress.
An IT manager working at a medical device manufacturer based in the Midwest told CIO.com that four people holding IT leadership positions in his organization had experienced stress-related illnesses over the past two years, including two who had heart attacks on the job. Two of the four IT leaders ended up retiring. One had to reduce his workload while he recovered from his illness, and the fourth had to take a medical leave of absence from the company. (This IT director wished to remain anonymous because he feared naming his company in the context of an article about work-related stress.)
Stress doesn't have to lead to such tragic consequences. IT professionals can learn to control their responses to stress, says Louisa Mattson, who teaches a variety of stress management techniques to executives through her practices at outplacement firm Essex Partners and leadership development firm Camden Consulting.
"We may not have control over much in our lives, but we do have control over how we're going to respond to stress and uncertainty," Mattson says.
A Technology Remedy for Stress
Asprey practiced yoga and meditation to manage his stress, but these techniques weren't effective enough for his lifestyle. So he turned to technology for help.
Asprey purchased a device called the emWave, which measures an individual's heart beat and the time intervals between their heart beats (a measure known as heart rate variability) through a sensor that attaches to the ear lobe. Lights that blink red in response to an individual's heart rate variability indicate when someone is stressed, angry or frustrated. When the lights on the device switch from red to blue, it indicates that the person is moving into a more "coherent" physical and emotional state. When the lights flash green, the individual is relaxed and their major body functions are working together, instead of against each other, as in a stressed state.
"I could never tell if I was meditating right," says Asprey. "When I had a device that would blink green, I felt like I was monitoring a server or an app, doing application performance monitoring, except on myself."
Asprey began using the emWave in concert with a breathing technique for 30 minutes each day. Even after the first session, he says he felt different, and better. After two weeks of using the emWave and practicing the breathing technique, he was sleeping more soundly. He felt calmer, and the dread that used to grab hold of him as he checked his email had disappeared.
"Being an IT professional, I'm trained in how to deal with complex systems," adds Asprey. "I started managing my body as a complex system, just as a hacker or systems administrator would. The emWave gave me a daily process I could run, just like a Cron process on a Unix server. I was able to apply systems monitoring techniques to my body. I would look at, what is my performance today versus yesterday, and can I optimize it?"
The Physiology of Stress
The emWave tracks heart rate variability because it indicates stress. When we feel stressed, frustrated or angry, our heart rate variability spikes. It can surge from 65 beats per minute to 85 beats per minute and drop back down again, says Catherine Calarco, vice president of corporate growth and development for HeartMath Inc., which makes the emWave.
If someone's heart rate variability was plotted on a graph when they were stressed, the resulting waveform pattern would show uneven, jagged peaks, according to HeartMath's research. This jagged heart rate pattern indicates that the sympathetic nervous system (which activates the fight-or-flight response to stress) and the parasympathetic nervous system (which tells the sympathetic nervous system when to slow down), are not functioning in synch, as they should be. Instead, the two systems fight each other.
"It's like driving a car with one foot on the gas and the other foot on the brake," says Calarco.
The result is that our bodies operate inefficiently. They burn more fuel, deplete our energy and run down all of our critical systems.
By contrast, positive emotions, such as joy, appreciation and love, create smooth heart rate patterns that look more like sine waves, says Calarco.
A heart rate pattern that looks like a sine wave indicates that an individual is in a "coherent" state, according to HeartMath—meaning that their breathing, heart and mind are in synch and that the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are working together.
Calarco says that when we're in a coherent state, we have the greatest cognitive ability. "It is our optimal state for performance. It is when we have the greatest ability to manage and make decisions," she says.
Thus, the blinking lights on the emWave show when an individual has reached that coherent state.
"This is technology, not a magic meditation machine with leprechauns inside," says Asprey.
Software that comes with the emWave (which costs $229 on drugstore.com) displays your average heart rate in beats per minute, plots your heart rate variability on a graph, and shows on a bar graph the percentage of time you're in low, medium and high coherence.
The emWave alone won't teach anyone to better manage their stress. What makes the emWave effective—besides the instant feedback it gives via its blinking lights and software—is the "Quick Coherence" breathing technique.
The "Quick Coherence" Technique
HeartMath advises emWave users to begin each relaxation session by focusing their attention on their heart.
"When you're stressed, you're in your head," says Calarco, adding that you need to shift your focus to your chest to help initiate physiological changes—in this case, shifting the heart's rhythm into a coherent pattern.
The next step is to take rhythmic breaths (five seconds in; five seconds out), imagining each breath entering and exiting your heart. Rhythmic breathing brings oxygen to your brain, helps you shift into a coherent state and ultimately enables you to think more clearly. When you're stressed, you breathe shallowly.
The final step is critical: Conjuring a positive feeling, such as love or appreciation. This also helps you move into a coherent state. Asprey says he thinks about the way his kids first looked at him right after they were born.
People should practice the breathing technique while using the emWave twice a day, in the morning and at night, for 15 minutes per session, says Calarco, adding that people begin to see the benefits of using the emWave after two to six weeks.
Calarco advises people to use the technique before or after a stressful or challenging situation, whether the morning commute, an argument with one's spouse, or a meeting with the CEO.
Practicing the technique before a challenging situation better prepares you to meet the challenge by getting you into that coherent state where your mind is focused and rested, and when you have the greatest ability to make sound decisions.
Practicing the technique after a stressful incident helps you recover from the stress response more quickly, says Calarco.
"When a stressful incident occurs, it releases over 1400 bio-chemicals in your system," she says. "That's a physiological tidal wave that is sustained for hours."
The breathing technique helps you recover more quickly by increasing parasympathetic activity to balance the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. The shift into a positive emotional state releasing new that counteract stress hormones.
"The HeartMath technique trains your heart to stay in that coherent pattern, so that you don't go into fight-or-flight mode," says Calarco.
Better Living Through Technology
Technology might have created Asprey's stress, but in the end it was also the remedy for it. It also allowed him to achieve his career goal without killing himself.
Today, Asprey is Trend Micro's vice president of cloud security, responsible for the security company's strategy around cloud computing. He remains attached to a computer or smartphone and continues to maintain a hectic travel and work schedule, but he's better able to cope with the running around and the jet lag because of his practice with the emWave.
"I went to New York on two hours of sleep, and I was able to do that because of HeartMath," says Asprey. "I've managed to cut down the amount of sleep I need [to function] to under five hours a night."
Calarco says the Quick Coherence technique restores and rejuvenates people by lowering the negative hormones released by stress and increasing the positive hormones associated with health and vitality.
Asprey also regularly gives presentations at conferences, and he says he wouldn't dream of going on stage without practicing the HeartMath technique beforehand.
"I know this makes me a better speaker so I always do it," he says. "I can walk on stage without experiencing stage fright. It makes me more grounded and focused. I can connect with my audience more easily. I get better feedback, better reviews of my presentations from my audience, when I do the HeartMath technique before going on stage than when I don't."
Asprey says the emWave has made him a better business person, too.
"If I do it regularly, I'm able to respond [to challenging situations] from a calmer place. I make decisions based on facts, rather than how I feel about the facts," he says. "Throughout the day I perform better because I spent a few minutes tuning into my own internal computer systems rather than letting them run themselves."
Meridith Levinson covers Careers, Project Management and Outsourcing for CIO.com. Follow Meridith on Twitter @meridith. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Meridith at firstname.lastname@example.org.