Dec 082014

By Amanda Sparling

A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear. Your heart pounds and you can’t breathe.

Relaxation techniques such as meditation, controlled breathing, and grounding can reduce anxiety and increase feelings of relaxation and emotional well-being. However, it is not always easy for a victim of a panic attack to be aware of what is physically happening to them at the onset of the attack and therefore they are unable to treat and calm themselves in the moment.

Additionally, panic attacks rarely happen in a controlled or private environment. Being exposed during a panic attack can heighten the overwhelming feelings of anxiety and fear and lead to complications if an attack occurs in an inopportune time such as during work or in a social setting.

Using sensors that measure specific physiological functions such as heart rate, biofeedback teaches an individual who suffers from Panic Attacks or Panic Disorder to recognize the body’s anxiety response and learn how to control them using relaxation and grounding techniques.

This project attempts to address the needs of a person who suffers from frequent panic attacks or panic disorder by allowing them to be aware of their physiological state in order to reduce the symptoms of a panic attack and aid in reducing the duration of a panic attack. Panic attacks are distinguished from other forms of anxiety by their intensity and their sudden, episodic nature. Through the Anxiety Cuff device a victim can take control of an attack and return to normal functionality as quickly as possible.

A person who is using the anxiety cuff will wear the Polar Heart Rate Transmitter which will measure their heart rate every second.

They will put the cuff on their arm, as pictured below, and go about their usual daily activities.

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Figure 1: Wearing a anxiety cuff

While an individual’s heart rate remains constant, there will be no change in the device and some light to moderate movement and exercise will have no effect on the device as well. However, as the wearer begins to experience the symptoms of a panic attack their heart rate will begin to dramatically increase.

Once the Heart rate increases to an exceptionally high level, the Arduino triggers the vibe board to apply vibration to the pressure point at the underside of the wearer’s wrist.

This notifies the wearer that they are experiencing the physiological symptoms of a panic attack and allows them to begin integrating relaxation and grounding techniques to halt the attack at it’s onset.

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Figure 2: Wearing the cuff with grounding techniques

If the attack is acute, and continues to progress the vibrating motor will continue to apply pressure to the wearer’s wrist while the heart rate is elevated. What this continued pressure will do is to allow the wearer to focus on the vibration and the physical environment – grounding themselves and allowing them to begin the process of re-associating their internal and physical states to help the attack subside.

Once the heart rate had reduced the lilypad vibe board will turn off, and the wearer can resume their normal activites.

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Figure 3: Resuming normal activities

There were some initial design challenges for the Anxiety Cuff. Most notably was the desire for this to be as minimally invasive and as socially acceptable as possible. The concern here was to make something that would be accepted as fashionable, without sacrificing the utility.

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Figure 4: Socially acceptable challanges in design

The very problem we are attempting to solve is anxiety, and so I did not want to increase anxiety by building something that would be largely rejected as unfashionable. The project strived to embody many of the idea’s laid out by Luke Russel in TryHards, Fashion Victims and Effortless Cool. By allowing a victim of panic attacks to take control of the situation and self treat themselves as an attack is happening they are able to maintain the façade of being fashionable and effortlessly cool. This social acceptance is key to not increasing the symptoms and severity of anxiety the wearer is experiencing at the onset of a panic attack.

The final project is a bit larger than what I would have hoped for, however by integrating current fashion trends into the device the look and feel aids in it becoming socially acceptable.

Through the creation of this project, I was very aware of each individual component that this project leveraged and the help I received from the maker community to allow it to come to fruition. The HRMI, which was critical to the project was built and cooperatively designed by danjuliodesigns and SparkFun. Additionally, I tapped into a number of open source communities to understand how each component worked and the help and tutorials available from these communities were invaluable to the project.

The Concept Lab Theses on Making in the Digital Age by Michael Dieter and Geert Lovink, outlines this idea quite well. “The maker is always plural. We all know that we never make things alone, however, our experiences are not easily reconciled with current institutional models that rely so heavily on individual achievements.”

The maker community is alive and thriving, and I’m excited to continue to collaborate with others within this community.

Technical Details:

This project is comprised of 5 primary parts.

  • Polar Hear Rate Transmitter (T31 Coded)
  • Polart Heart Rate Monitor Interface (HRMI)
  • Arduino Uno
  • Arduino Lilypad Vibe Board
  • Power Supply (9Volt Battery Adapter built using Sparkfun’s tutorial here)
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Figure 5: Coding with Arduino

The Code:

This code will take the info from the sensor band (average of 20 of the samples) and report that back in the Arduino’s serial terminal as BPM (beats per minute). If it doesn’t have a connection, or the band does not have a good connection to the skin, it will report a BPM of 0. The code continues to check the heart rate every second, and as the heart rate increases to above the identified threshold the vibe board is triggered and applies vibration to the pressure point at the underside of the wearers wrist.

You can review the full code used at this more detailed tutorial and project overview.

The code used for this project can be found in github.

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