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Can This High-Tech Stress Relief Device Send My Brainwaves to a State of Healing Bliss?

NuCalm promotes itself as neuroscience-backed stress and sleep technology. In practice, though, it just helped me nap.

I just now woke up from a delightful 20-minute nap. Actually, it was more of a 10-minute half-nap half-trance, preceded by thoughts of what I needed to accomplish today that slowly dissolved into the types of non-sequitur visions that occur in that earliest stage of sleep. Each time my brain began shifting toward some dream about vacuuming the front lawn, it was quickly brought back to the awareness that I was, in fact, sitting awake in my mother’s living room recliner, AirPods in, eye mask on and “bio-signal processing disc” adhered to my wrist. Somehow, this was rejuvenating. 

For the last week, I’ve been testing out the NuCalm system. According to its website, NuCalm is “the world’s only patented neuroscience technology clinically proven to resolve stress and improve sleep quality — without drugs.” It incorporates a neuroacoustic software app utilized for 20- to 120-minute increments, an eye mask and the aforementioned processing discs, and in practice involves listening to ambient, cinematic sounds (similar to this) with your eyes closed and a sticker stuck to your inner arm. 

Of course, the actual science behind it is said to be far more complicated. Each of the components are designed to trigger the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which aids with healing and relaxation. The disc is designed to release gamma-aminobutyric acid, a neurotransmitter that inhibits cortisol and adrenaline. With this and the app, NuCalm halts your body’s stress response and therefore the mental and physical toll stress can take on the body. While that all sounds a bit woo-woo, particularly when it feels like you’re just relaxing to some New Age-y tunes, it’s apparently used by the U.S. military, 49 sports teams and in over a million surgical procedures. Some dental offices even use it for patients who are afraid of the dentist.

NuCalm’s ‘bio-signal processing disc’

Although the product is touted as a means of potentially healing the body from injury, addiction and physical woes, it seems predominately useful for relaxation and anxiety. The website states that using NuCalm will bring your brain waves to the “verge of sleep,” but in my experience, the verge of sleep is much like an actual nap. By this measure, my use of NuCalm was a success: After my 20-minute session this afternoon, I indeed felt far more refreshed and awake. While some of my sessions kept me conscious the entire time, I at least felt a bit more relaxed than before. 

At the start, I’d thought I was supposed to treat the session like a meditation, avoiding letting my thoughts wander. I’m absolutely terrible at this, and instead my thoughts ranged through everything from how embarrassed I was when my mom knocked me over as we got off a ski lift together when I was 13, to my grandmother dying in her bed, also when I was 13. Why I was so fixated upon events of this age during my session is a mystery to me, but regardless, I think I still fell asleep for about five minutes. Oddly enough, an FAQ section of the app states that memory recollection is a common characteristic of “theta brainwave range,” and that recalling memories in this stage allows you to dissociate negative feelings from them. But while NuCalm may have been partially responsible for my fixation upon these memories, I still don’t feel excellent about them.

Overall, NuCalm did allow me to take perfect little afternoon naps in a structured way. I am decent at napping as it is, but I do think something about NuCalm, whether it be the discs or the sounds or the timer, made those naps more effective than usual. 

One glaring problem with NuCalm, however, is its price. For monthly shipments of 20 discs and access to the app, NuCalm charges $60 a month, or $600 a year. Perhaps as I keep using it, I’ll find that this is a completely reasonable cost for the benefit of better relaxation, health and sleep. At this moment, though, I’d pay maybe $10 a month. The app also needs some serious updating, as it currently only offers three different session types (recharge, reboot and rescue) at varying lengths and with a rather clunky layout. For $60 a month, the app should be perfect and expansive. Instead, it feels rudimentary, with lesser parts of the app — like the post-session debriefing FAQ — entirely nonfunctional.

I’ve taken some fabulous naps this last week, and I’ll keep using NuCalm for this purpose. It’s a nearly effortless way of fitting 20 minutes of pure relaxation into my day. Whether those bio-signalling dics do anything, I’m still dubious — in addition to a cleaner app, I’d need to gain a bit more trust in the science to pay $60 a month. Perhaps, though, that’s a trivial price to pay in order to label my workday naps as a body-healing productivity hack.