Still sleepless in New Salem? The Sensate's good vibrations may curb anxiety, insomnia
The Sensate is about the size of a computer mouse and is placed on the chest. It then rumbles intermittently as you listen to its app, which plays calming music and sounds. But can it help you sleep?
Author's note: Last week, I wrote to my fellow insomniacs about the Morphée, a (mostly) non-digital device that is supposed to help people fall asleep more easily. This week, I'm reviewing the Sensate, another device which is also supposed to bring on the zzz's.
In my former life as a cat owner, I could always fall asleep whenever my cat curled up on top of me and started purring.
Granted, Sebastian weighed 17 pounds, which might have made the bird-like sternum of a more fragile woman collapse.
But I have meaty German bones, so Sebastian’s slumbers always felt more like being pinned beneath a warm, gently rumbling weighted blanket.
Fortunately, now there is a device called the Sensate which uses the same purrr-inciples to help you relax and fall asleep — minus the cat hair, the litterbox or the prospect of being awakened at 4 a.m. to give Tater Tot his kibble.
The Sensate is a little, black device — about the size of a computer mouse — which is placed on the chestbone. You then sync it with its companion app, which plays calming, multi-layered mash-ups of everything from birds singing and brooks babbling to meditative humming and hypnotic chants.
Meanwhile, the device itself hums and vibrates, often at a cadence completely different from the music flowing through your headphones.
In the process, Sensate’s developers claim that it can help ease stress and anxiety while also contributing to better, more restful sleep.
The first time I tried it, I was surprised by how quickly it lulled me into an almost hypnotic state. The vibrations from the device resonated through the breastbone, lulling me into a sense of relaxation and mindfulness with surprising efficiency.
The second time I tried the Sensate, I chose the 10-minute “Avian” track and feel asleep within minutes.
I especially appreciated that I didn’t have to try so hard to disengage my brain. Like many people, I find the process of “mindfulness” to be intensely frustrating: How can you stop the brain from overthinking and judging, when that is what it has been created specifically to do?
At times, the art of staying in the moment seems like an impossible task — a luxury reserved for the very young or for those who have spent decades meditating and practicing how to “just be.”
But the Sensate felt like a Cliff’s Notes to mindfulness. I was so carried away by the gentle vibrations and even the pleasant soudtrack, which somehow managed to NOT sound simply like Enya trapped on an island with an army of pan flutes.
If the Sensate experience sounds a bit too New Agey and woo-woo to you, it might help to know there is real science behind this gizmo's development.
The Sensate works by stimulating the vagus nerve, a very influential nerve which has become known as “the second brain.” The vagus nerve is believed to play a part in everything from our inflammatory response to how hungry we feel.
Research shows the vagus nerve boosts the parasympathetic system (PNS) — the system that prompts us to “rest or digest” instead of snapping into a “fight or flight” response.” This creates promising potential for people with post traumatic stress disorder, whose bodies might even be stuck in a constant state of "fight or flight."
Our “vagal tone” indicates how well one’s vagus nerve is working. A healthy vagal tone helps boost our heart rate variability, which is an important health metric. A high HRV shows your body is adaptable to a wide variety of changes and will tend to be happier and less stressed.
Long before we understood how the vagus nerve works, humans have instinctively gravitated toward activities that helped stimulate it. Certain low-tech approaches, such as chanting "OM" or deep-breathing exercises, can help activate its calming response.
Now doctors are using various therapies — from electrodes to other vibration devices — to help harness the power of the vagus for everything from migraines to depression.
Unlike some of these more sophisticated instruments, the Sensate doesn't claim to be a medical device. BioSelf, the company which manufactures the device, makes no claims which would require FDA approval. However, BioSelf has conducted some small studies which show its efficacy. One says the Sensate improved heart rate variability in 86% of patients after 20 minutes of use.
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Hi, I'm Tammy Swift, a loooong-time columnist for The Forum. Over the years, I've written about everything from growing up on the farm and life as a single woman to marriage, divorce and the "joys" of menopause. I'm also slightly obsessed with my dog. Check out my latest columns below. Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Sensate does have a couple of downsides.
One is the price: a hefty $249. That’s quite a chunk of change for this little gizmo, although insomniacs are so chronically exhausted that they have virtually no sales resistance. They will buy a $5,000 bed if they think it will help them sleep all night.
Another disadvantage is that you need to download an app to use it. Lately, I have vowed to never download one more app without first deleting one. So downloading the Sensate app meant I had to get rid of my ultra-practical “Be a Virtual Foot Doctor!” app, thus losing my excuse to postpone real-life housecleaning because I was too busy treating virtual bunions for virtual money so I could add onto my virtual clinic.
The Sensate app also includes a “paid” option, for which you can get all the REALLY good stuff by plunking down even more cheddar per month.
But I honestly don’t think you need the upgrade, as the “basic cable” package seemed to do the trick for me.
Oh, and the company does have a " try it worry-free for 40 days policy, if that helps.
My one bit of advice would be to ease into the Sensate. I enjoyed it so much that I tried it several times a day, which I think actually made me more anxious.
When it comes to the Sensate, just chill — and trust that it will eventually do what it was designed to do.