Good Vibes Only

I Tried The Apollo Neuro, And This Is No Normal Smart Watch

Most wearables just track how unhealthy we are, but the Apollo Neuro offers a small solution in the form of literal vibes.

Looking back, it makes sense why my father would suggest leaving Santa a little scotch to unwind with his cookies and milk. The holidays are a stressful time of year for everyone, but especially for parents with the financial strain of spending well over $200 per kid on gifts and then immediately giving up all that credit to tiny elves, on top of, well, everything else. A recent poll found that about one out of six parents experience high levels of stress during the holiday season, and one out of five believe that this negatively affects their child’s experience.

That’s why when I stumbled on the Apollo Neuro, a wearable device that promises to make stress more manageable with the help of scientifically designed vibrations on the skin, it sounded too good to be true — but I was intrigued enough to try it. And yet, the Apollo Neuro promise seemed like a tall order for such a small vibrating square strapped on my wrist like a weird watch.

Wearable technology has become increasingly popular in the health and wellness space in recent years. According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly one in every three adults in the U.S. now uses some form of wearable tech. But when it comes to Apple Watches and other devices, the main function is collecting and tracking information and gathering data about how stressed out you are.

That’s what turned me off to wearables from the outset. I’m already well aware that I’m not sleeping enough, exercising enough, and I am definitely not meditating enough. I don’t need an expensive, futuristic looking watch to tell me my body thinks I’m a jerk.

This is a common issue, psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dave Rabin. M.D., Ph.D., tells me. In fact, it was this complaint that inspired him and his wife Kathryn Fantauzzi to develop the Apollo.

“People were putting their wearables away in their drawers in many cases because they’re telling them stuff they already know,” he says. Rabin refers to this feeling as “data fatigue” and set out to solve the problem with a new device that’s comparable to taking deep breaths, getting a hug from a loved one, or other simple mindfulness techniques. These practices allow people to feel grounded in the present, and less prone to slipping into a state of fight or flight.

Ultimately, this is what makes stress so detrimental, Rabin warns. When we get worked up about the holidays, more primitive parts of the brain can’t always distinguish between the stress of in-laws visiting for the holidays and the stress of a tiger stalking you in the grassland. Instead, the fear center of the brain floods the body with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and funnels blood away from recovery systems, to fight or flee from whatever is setting off this internal alarm. Since the only beast you’re facing is a Mall Santa, this stress places an unnecessary strain on the body by making it harder to sleep and increasing inflammation, leading to poorer health outcomes.

Mindfulness techniques serve as a reminder to the brain that we are safe and not under attack. In some instances, mindfulness exercises can also improve energy, increase focus, and promote what experts refer to as a “flow state” — that feeling you get when you’re so fully engaged in a task that your concentration is nearly impossible to break.

Drawing from what scientists already know about how human touch and massage can help people regulate their nervous systems, Rabin and a team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh designed eight vibrations for the Apollo: energy, social, focus, recover, calm, unwind, sleep, and power nap.

Lauren Vinopal/Apollo Neuro

Rabin describes these different sensations as “noise canceling for your body.” A total of seven clinical trials so far, and more on the way, have demonstrated that the device might be able to lower anxiety, boost focus and productivity, improve sleep, and potentially increase heart rate variability (HRV) — the amount of time your heart rate changes between beats, which has been linked with resilience to stress.

Some of the data on what researchers refer to as “vibroacoustic stimulation” is published in peer-reviewed journals, but other clinical trials are not. Of the latter, one pediatrics pilot study indicated improvements in mood, behavior, engagement, and stress management in children and adolescents with anxiety and ADHD. So the device isn’t just safe for kids, but potentially helpful, Rabin says.

Given the evidence, I decided to test out these vibes for myself during Thanksgiving with my family. Although I don’t have the stressors of parenting, I do have a politically divided extended family that’s not above arguing after two drinks, and perhaps the Apollo wearable could save me from that.

The Apollo Pretest

The day before Thanksgiving, I decided to pregame with holiday stress by running an errand at my local post office. My 93-year-old grandmother had sent me two birthday cards the previous month, which had gone missing along with several other pieces of mail. After failing to resolve the issue online or over the phone, I decided to endure one of the most annoying errands ever…with my Apollo in tow.

As easy as it was to set up and use the device through a free app that pairs with it easily after downloading, I was highly skeptical it could make the post office tolerable. I had the choice of wearing the small square on my wrist, ankle, or clip it onto my bra or tank top strap near my sternum or collar bone, or wear it on my hip like a pager in the early 2000s. (The instructions state that the small vibrating square is most effective when it’s placed directly on a bone for maximum sensation.) I opted to strap it on my wrist like a WHOOP band.

Out of the eight vibrations the Apollo has to choose from, I started the day with the “energy” vibes at 75% intensity. As shown in the picture below, there is a toggle to control the intensity for each vibration sequence, which are basically, as Rabin puts it, composed as “songs for your skin.” In addition to managing the intensity of these vibrations, I could select how long I wanted the “songs” to last, anywhere from 15 to 30 to 60 minutes (aside for the sleep and social sequences, which can be set up to two hours).

Lauren Vinopal/Apollo Neuro

The energy vibrations felt like little zaps reminding me to get up and out the door. Iit felt like this took my typical cup of coffee up a notch, without feeling jittery.

Once these vibes got me out the door and I arrived at the institution I dread almost as much as the DMV, I switched the vibration sequence to “calm,” and moved the toggle up to 100%. Compared to the “energy” setting, these vibrations were more like longer waves than shorter buzzes. They did arguably get me into a flow state — mostly because I didn't realize I was mistakenly standing in the line for passport photos for about five minutes. Then, after waiting about a half hour in the correct line, the postal worker couldn’t find my mail and speculated that it was out with my carrier, who had not delivered it to my apartment in several weeks.

Despite having failed to resolve the situation, the skeptic in me admits that the vibrations kept me in my body, and possibly prevented me from losing my temper over an infuriating experience. By the time I got home, my main gripe with the device was that it made my wrist a little sore after wearing it for the better part of an hour on high. In retrospect, I could have switched wrists while I was waiting.

The next day, I clipped the Apollo to my chest, under my Thanksgiving sweater, set the vibration to “focus” at about 75% intensity, and drove 50 minutes west of Chicago to my Aunt’s for Thanksgiving.

Introducing The Apollo To My Family

Like a secret boyfriend, I decided not to tell my family about the Apollo until I realized how I felt about it. But I set it to “calm” at 75%, so I would have room to increase it in case anything stressful happened. Plus, I didn’t want it to vibrate so much that someone noticed.

To my family’s credit, it was a happy, low-stress event where everyone was in positive spirits and no one mentioned politics. There was only one young child in the mix, my cousin’s wife’s brother’s toddler, who was greeted like a celebrity and exited before he got cranky. To the device’s credit, the vibrations were discrete and calming enough to keep me present and in my body.

The most stressful part of the night was the travel, due to all the people on the roads and anxiety about their potentially reckless driving. I initially set my vibrations to “focus” at 75%, to stay vigilant on the drive. But as a nervous driver, I’ll occasionally get sore in my neck and shoulders from clenching the wheel. So, on the way home, I set the Apollo to “calm” at 50%, and that loosened up my ten-and-two slightly.

Unlike meditation or listening to binaural beats that can be distracting behind the wheel, Rabin assured me that the Apollo was perfectly safe to use while driving, or during other duties that require focused attention, like watching your kid climb a jungle gym or play at the park. Even fighter pilots use the Apollo, Rabin added.

As much as I stayed focused on the road, I noticed a welcomed difference as the Apollo lightly massaged my sternum, like a Theragun for my jacked up nervous system.

The Verdict

Much like a good massage gun, the Apollo is pricey and runs just under $300 on sale, but it’s typically $349. Likewise, the device also offers SmartVibes, a subscription service that costs another $99.99 a year and incorporates health AI to track your sleep cycle. In doing this, the Apollo detects when you’re about to wake up throughout the night (i.e. when you’re not supposed to, unless you really have to pee). Supposedly, the device releases sleep-inducing vibrations before you are roused, leading to better rest.

As a finicky sleeper already, the Apollo was a little uncomfortable for my restless nights. Even at a lower intensity, I found the vibrations to be more distracting than anything else. For my particular type of insomnia, I tend to respond better to deep breathing, relaxation techniques like autogenic training, the military method for sleep, and even the occasional low-dose of CBD and melatonin.

From the feedback on their Facebook page, it seems like plenty of other people think the Apollo is an effective sleep aid, so this could be a personal preference more than anything. But I wouldn’t pay an extra subscription rate for sleep support when four out of the eight vibrations available seem to support a restful night. Specifically, there are vibrations for recovery, calming, unwinding, and sleeping without a subscription, just no AI feature to automatically turn them on when you’re about to wake up.

To be fair, there is no one-size-fits-all cure for stress, especially during the holiday season. And the same way that you can’t expect everyone to master meditation or tolerate talk therapy, the Apollo might not be for everyone. Just like I didn’t find it to be relaxing for sleep purposes, some Amazon users didn’t find the vibrations to be relaxing during their waking hours either. On top of that, attempting to get a refund seems like it stressed out consumers further. At least, that was the primary complaint among the frustrated one-star reviews.

For the sake of transparency, it is worth noting that I did not purchase my Apollo, and I’m not sure I would for the purposes of relaxation. Ultimately, the vibes got me through Thanksgiving and kept me energized and focused on Friday, despite a food hangover. Still, I’m not sure I would spend $300 for what a few minutes of jumping jacks, going for a walk with my dog, or a short workout would have accomplished. To the Apollo’s credit, these tiny vibrations required far less motivation and took no time from my day.

This Thanksgiving, I was thankful for many things, including not having to go back to the post office to send back my Apollo. For parents, if $300 is too much of a gamble to take on your psyche this year, Rabin says hugs and deep breaths calm the nervous system in comparable ways. So, luckily for parents, warm snuggles and long sighs are free and abundant resources during the most wonderful time of the year.