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I tried a de-stressing treatment & here’s what happened

headphones destressing treatment fi
Photo credit: grinvalds/Getty Images

As a human who works on the internet in 2019, I’m frequently stressed out, anxious and sleep-deprived. This, it turns out, is a trifecta of ailments addressed by a de-stressing treatment called NuCalm, a technology-based, science-backed system that claims to help users achieve relaxation “without drugs, without delay, without fail” and bills itself as “stress relief for the way we live today — technology to help you disconnect.”

According to the company, 30 minutes of NuCalm is equal to two to three hours of restorative sleep. The NuCalm website boasts that the de-stressing treatment takes just two minutes to administer and less than five minutes to achieve its effects, making it the very definition of a quick fix. So, when I was offered a chance to take NuCalm for a free test run, I leapt at the opportunity (the at-home system costs $4,695 and individual office treatments cost around $45 a session).

With its sleek website and claims of high-tech, borderline-magic results, I half expected my NuCalm experience to take place in the literal future — or, at very least, a facility that reeked of sci-fi vibes. I think I was picturing an office that looked like the ship from Passengers and a bulky set-up reminiscent of the memory-implanting tech from Total Recall or maybe even a coffin-like pod straight out of The Fifth Element.

I had skimmed through the FAQ section on NuCalm’s website and, somewhere along the way, had glazed over something about the frequency with which the treatment is administered at dental offices, but clearly this fact had been buried by my Leeloo Dallas daydreams. My NuCalm treatment was not administered on the set of a movie, but it also wasn’t administered in a dentist’s office.

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What getting a NuCalm de-stressing treatment is like

On the morning of my appointment, I drove across Los Angeles to Santa Monica to the offices of a bona fide doctor to the stars, whose Hollywood clientele includes actresses, authors and motivational gurus, and who boasts expertise in energy medicine, integrative medicine and bioidentical hormone replacement therapy. The office was nothing like a luxury space cruise or a dental office. Instead, my NuCalm experience began in a (purposefully) dimly lit waiting room that looked more like the living room of an eccentric, well-traveled college professor than a medical facility.

The doctor was fashionably late — not with another patient, just in getting to the office. While the tardiness might usually have annoyed me, here, it seemed like part of the experience, almost like a preview of the results of the high-tech treatment that awaited me. “After this, I, too, will be the kind of person who can float into an appointment 10 minutes late without frantically apologizing and fending off a self-hate-fueled panic attack,” I thought, with some satisfaction, following Doc Hollywood into his office to begin my journey to Zen.

During a brief consultation, the doctor explained the NuCalm process and summarized the science behind it (more on that later). The gist of the system, I learned, was this: I would chew a tablet of gamma-Aminobutyric acid, or γ-aminobutyric acid (or GABA, for short), an inhibitory neurotransmitter meant to decrease activity in my nervous system. I would wear the special NuCalm Biosignal Processing Disc, a small sticker placed on the inside of my wrist that would work to activate my parasympathetic nervous system by tapping into my body’s Pericardium Meridian with particular electromagnetic (EM) frequencies. I would listen, through headphones, to binaural beat music — music with two different rhythmic pulses that triggers Alpha and Theta brain waves, which are associated with the first stage of deep sleep and meditation. Also, I would be blindfolded. And, in Doc Hollywood’s office, I would do all of this while lying on a waterbed — although the waterbed, I learned, is not a standard or required component of the treatment.

Once briefed, the de-stressing treatment began. I was led to a small exam room (or, possibly, a large closet), where I was given a large GABA tablet and told to chew — but not swallow — it while the doctor queued up the binaural beats and attached the Biosignal Processing Disc to my wrist. Finally, after what felt like a much longer period of time than it possibly could have been, I was told to swallow the GABA vitamin sludge, which had the artificially sweet, fruity flavor and distinctively chalky taste and texture of Flinstones vitamins that are a few months past their expiration date. On went the headphones and the blindfold and I settled in, eager to come out on the other side of my 30-minute session feeling relaxed and refreshed.

The NuCalm treatment itself was perfectly pleasant. The music was soothing but engaging (I’ve since subscribed to a binaural beats playlist on Spotify — bless the internet). The chalky, orange-adjacent flavor of the GABA tablet didn’t linger in an especially obtrusive way. And the waterbed was heated, which made for a cozy place to lie down and rest.

What followed was a very long 30 minutes, with an inner monologue that progressed as follows:

Do I feel calm yet? Am I less stressed? Is my anxiety better? No, I don’t think it is.

What am I doing wrong? Why don’t I feel calm? If science can’t make me chill TF out, am I just a lost cause?

Maybe if I do a body scan, I’ll be able to feel the effects. That’s a good idea. I’m going to do a body scan. This will be like mindfulness on steroids — orange-flavored, healthy steroids.

How long has it been? It feels like it’s probably almost over and it didn’t help. I am broken.

I was wrong. It was not almost over.

Maybe it’s the kind of thing you can’t feel in the moment, but I’ll notice a huge difference when it’s over.

I have so much work to do.

Stop thinking about work and being stressed out. That defeats the entire purpose.

Or does it? Should this treatment make me able to think about work without feeling so stressed? Or if it’s working, should I not be having those thoughts at all?

When the de-stressing treatment was over, Doc Hollywood and I checked in very briefly. I asked how often he recommended that people come in for NuCalm treatments and he said that it varies, but that some people “need it everyday.” I couldn’t help but think, based on my experience and the absence of tangible results, that that seemed excessive. He handed me some research further explaining the science behind NuCalm before hurrying off to his next appointment, and I left feeling disappointed and a little anxious about my failure to feel less anxious through the treatment.

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The science of NuCalm

At this point, you may be wondering if the conclusion I’m drawing is that NuCalm is a sham. For the record, it’s not. I found the experience to be a little New Age-y in practice, but the system really is based in science. Drawing from neuroscience research into the patterns the brain goes through during natural periods of relaxation, every component of NuCalm is designed to mimic that process and prompt a stressed brain to switch gears to a more relaxed state.

As NuCalm explains on its website, complete with a slew of Scripps-worthy science vocabulary: “This patented technology addresses the brain circuitry in the limbic system, the hypothalamus and the brainstem responsible for producing stress and anxiety. NuCalm works specifically on the body’s inhibitory system, the GABAergic system. This device is bio-mimetic in that it resets the naturally occurring negative feedback loop of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which when properly functioning is supposed to shut off and stop releasing cortisol from the adrenal glands after the end of a stressful event. NuCalm is comprised of three discrete steps that work together to entrain brainwaves to the frequency of the first stages of sleep and create parasympathetic nervous system dominance. People in this state are physically unable to have an anxious response. Within moments of application, users will begin to feel relief from the ‘fight-or-flight’ sympathetic nervous system response and their stress hormone (cortisol) levels will begin to decline as the HPA axis is inhibited.”

Here’s a quick breakdown of the science behind each stage of the NuCalm process.

The GABA supplement

The GABAergic system does play a key role in science of relaxation (and problems in the system have been linked to anxiety and depression). It’s actually the main inhibitory neurotransmitter system in brain circuits. Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid is a relaxation neurotransmitter that the body produces naturally when we’re getting ready to sleep, so the tactic of using GABA supplements to signal the brain that it’s time to calm down makes sense.

What’s not totally clear, however, is how effective oral GABA supplements are in triggering those benefits. A 2015 review of research into the efficacy of GABA supplements found mixed results, which all come down to GABA’s blood-brain barrier permeability — or its ability to pass through the structural and chemical barrier between the brain and systemic circulation. While some studies have shown that GABA can cross the blood-brain barrier, others have shown the opposite, suggesting a possible placebo effect behind perceived benefits of the supplements. Scientists agree that more research is required to determine how beneficial GABA supplements truly are.

The NuCalm Biosignal Processing Disc

According to NuCalm’s website, the disc “simplifies the process of activating the parasympathetic nervous system, by tapping into the body’s Pericardium Meridian with particular electromagnetic (EM) frequencies.”

The disc (which, again, was a round sticker, about the size of a quarter, that was applied to the inside of my wrist) was, admittedly, my greatest source of skepticism in the process, and NuCalm’s official explanation of the science behind it highlights the most New Age-y vibes of the company.

Per NuCalm: “Everything in the world as we know it vibrates with a particular pattern, thus living systems produce electromagnetic (EM) frequencies endogenously that differ depending on the level of health or disease. It is hypothesized that if you can restore the frequencies that travel through the Meridians you can reinstate optimal physiology. Each NuCalm disc holds the EM frequency patterns of GABA and its precursors to deliver a pure biological signal to your body. When placed on the inside of your left wrist, at your Pericardium-6 acupuncture point, the disc sends a signal to the pericardium of your heart to activate local parasympathetic nerve fibers, which then transmit the signal to your brain telling it to increase vagal nerve output and begin the process of slowing down the body. The disc stops your acute stress response, so the brainwave entrainment with NuCalm’s neuroacoustic software is always reliable and efficient at getting you into theta brainwave range, where restoration and relaxation can take place.”

What other people are saying about NuCalm

And what does outside science have to say about NuCalm’s magic disc? Well, a Google search of “Biosignal Processing Disc” brings up little outside of references to and articles about NuCalm, but NuCalm isn’t the only company touting the effectiveness of bio-frequency stickers. In 2017, Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP promoted a $120 brand of bio-frequency stickers, leading to a short-lived viral moment for the tech. Unfortunately for proponents of the devices, the response wasn’t great, with Mark Shelhamer, former chief scientist at NASA’s human research division, notably decrying the GOOP-endorsed product as “snake oil.”

Although the NuCalm site explains that “each disc holds the electromagnetic frequency patterns of GABA and its precursors to deliver a pure biosignal to your body,” it’s not clear exactly how placing the sticker on your wrist triggers that delivery.

The Binaural Soundtrack

There’s clearer science to back up the third unique component of the NuCalm system, what it calls its “neuroacoustic software.” A 2018 study backs up the claim that listening to binaural beats can affect behavior and sleep cycles. And the two brain wave patterns that NuCalm homes in on — Alpha and Theta waves — are associated with relaxation, meditation, creativity and sleep. Other studies have suggested that prolonged exposure to binaural beat tapes can be effective in reducing anxiety.

So, does NuCalm work or not?

Given the underwhelming experience I had with NuCalm, I reached out to NuCalm president and CEO, Jim Poole, to find out if I was alone. As it turns out, I’m not.

Poole explains that the noticeable effect of the first de-stressing treatment is “modest” for some users — albeit those he described as having lower levels of stress (full disclosure: I have diagnosed panic and sleep disorders and was experiencing high levels of anxiety, frequent panic attacks and persistent insomnia in the weeks leading up to my NuCalm demo, none of which improved after my treatment).

“It all depends on context and circumstances,” Poole says of what users can expect from a first NuCalm session. “If a person is experiencing a high level of stress, the effect of NuCalm is profound. The more out of balance the autonomic nervous system is, the greater the impact of driving the person to homeostasis. When we NuCalm top executives, pilots, professional athletes, people suffering from sleep disorders, they report a significant and powerful response to their very first session.”

While Poole says daily use of the system is recommended for optimal results, he also stressed that NuCalm’s effects are immediate, and the impact on the parasympathetic nervous system is scientifically measurable in research settings after just one session.

And as for my nagging fear that I somehow “messed up” and ruined the demo? Poole says that’s not the case and assures potential NuCalm users that the system works no matter what you bring to the table.

“It really does not matter what state you are in,” he explains. “You can consume caffeine, stimulants, medications, etc., before NuCalm. It has no effect on how NuCalm works and how effective NuCalm is. The bottom line is NuCalm slows your brain and body down, guides you to 6Hz brain wave function and triggers your body’s maintenance function to achieve systematic balance. Most people don’t feel anything because there is nothing to feel. Your body is heavy and idle, your breathing is slow and deep, and your mind wanders. That’s NuCalm.”

After you de-stress, treat yourself to a latte without those caffeine jitters. Check out our video below on tea lattes, also made with special technology that’s changing the game.

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