Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc., speaks about Apple Watch during an event at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, California, U.S. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

When Your Apple Watch Wakes You Up in the Middle of the Night

(Bloomberg) -- If there’s one thing almost guaranteed to send your heart rate soaring, it’s having a smartwatch wake you up at 3 a.m. with an alert that you might be about to die.

This happened to me three weeks ago. My Apple Watch sounded an alarm in the early hours — concerned and disoriented, I sat up thinking at first it was an emergency phone call. It wasn’t. It was an alert that my heart was racing at about 128 beats per minute even though I was motionless.

This is an optional feature on the Apple Watch. It can tell you if your heart is racing (and, in the new Series 4 model, beating too slowly) based on your present activity. It’s designed to help detect possible health issues before they become problematic, or worse. 

For me, a reasonably healthy 33-year-old, the reality was innocuous. I’d been having a violent nightmare after an evening of uncharacteristically heavy drinking. My brain was reacting to fear, my blood was full of alcohol, and my heart was having to overcompensate. After an hour, I calmed down and went back to bed.

But it left me with a lingering concern that relates to something I decided to talk publicly about during the U.K.’s Mental Health Awareness Week in May. I’ve had a severe nervous disorder since my teens that’s triggered by hypochondria, or a phobia of illness. In the past it’s resulted in extreme daily panic attacks, loss of eyesight, tinnitus, vomiting and, at one point, a number of months off work. It’s kept under control with a variety of treatments and medicines.

It’s something I have to think about with increasing regularity as the technology industry pushes us to embrace personal devices that monitor our health. For example, Apple just introduced an electrocardiogram feature in its latest watch, which can sense atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rate that can increase the risk of stroke. 

While I’m absolutely no opponent of these tools — I don’t believe that ignorance of any health condition is preferable to an early warning, even if it scares you — I think the industry needs to ensure that the sympathetic communication of warnings remains a priority. For someone with a nervous disposition, being woken up by a device flashing a health warning is a sure-fire way to trigger panic.

I would hope a future ecosystem of devices and sensors will be even smarter, and more sensitive to mental health too. In my 3 a.m. scenario, perhaps they would be able to triangulate that restless sleep, a high blood-alcohol level, and a one-off high heart rate, was likely more indicative of “user error” (i.e. too many beers) rather than imminent cardiac arrest due to undetected heart complications. Or maybe instead of an alarm in the middle of the night for an isolated incident, our devices could take more time to decide whether there’s a possible trend to investigate.

Apple’s features are entirely optional and can be disabled easily, and its Breathe app is an effective way to be mindful of the benefits of slower inhales and exhales — something I strongly suggest anyone suffering anxiety issues investigate. Breathing techniques are remarkably effective in combating elevated stress levels. 

But above all, I believe it’s important that as these products are created and marketed, we encourage companies to be thoughtful about how warnings and statistics related to our physical health can negatively affect our mental well being, despite their undeniably good intentions. The brain and the body are as intrinsically linked as an iPhone and a connected Apple Watch.

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