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A Portable Stress Test

November 16, 1986|JUBE SHIVER Jr.

With companies being blamed for causing stress by subjecting workers to cranky bosses, blinking computer terminals, ringing telephones and other disturbances, one Los Angeles man has found there may be more money in fighting stress than in causing it.

Alfred A. Barrios, a clinical psychologist and stress-management expert based in Los Angeles, is marketing a $3.95 credit-card-size device that indicates relative levels of stress by measuring fingertip temperature. There are about 10 million stress cards in circulation, produced either by Barrios' SPC Centers or by its licensees, Barrios says. That includes 10,000 to Arizona Public Service Co. in Phoenix and 700,000 to Cigna Health Plans of Illinois, Barrios says.

Gross sales for the card, which comes with a 14-page booklet, amounted to $654,000 last year, Barrios said, noting that some of the cards were bulk purchases sold at a discount. Based on the principle that stress causes cold hands, the card's black liquid crystal indicator is set to turn deep blue at relaxed body temperatures of more than 94 degrees. As temperatures drop below that level, the liquid crystal indicator changes from blue to green to red to black.

Users who register red or black can use relaxation techniques explained on the back of the card to reduce their skin temperature, according to Barrios.

"We've received a lot of positive feedback from employees," said Joan Ticknor, an analyst at Arizona Public Service Co. who first recommended that the utility purchase the cards for use in its wellness program. "Most people carry the cards around with them in their purses or wallets and use them several times during the day.

Despite the apparent sales success of Barrios' invention, medical experts question whether the device is really useful in measuring stress.

"To assume you can tell how much stress a person has simply by pressing a thumb on a card could be fallacious," said Alfred Coodley, a clinical professor emeritus of psychiatry at USC. Stress levels can vary, he said, depending on an individual's age, race, marital status, education and medical factors.

Barrios acknowledges that other factors can influence skin temperature other than stress but maintains that "generally fingertip temperature is a fairly accurate indicator of how stressed you are. The real value of this card is not only to tell a person how stressed or not stressed he is but to show him that he can control his stress level and to practice relaxation training."

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