Tracking well? - or going off the tracks? 

Technology is everywhere - and its great! The recent addition of new family member ‘Alexa’ to our kitchen has produced many new entertainments, and is rapidly becoming the most respected member of the household as it seems to know everything, beating both parents! However there are unexpected consequences which are less positive. In this case it is mainly about the ability of my 6 year old son to request any music track he wants (and to turn the volume up high) - but might some of our other new technology have an unwanted impact on our emotional and mental health? 

As we’re well into the season of Good Intentions and Resolutions, many people will be putting to good use this month Christmas gifts like fitbits or other exercise trackers, and/or downloading apps which track their behaviour and help them monitor success (or failure!) towards their goals. The array of such apps is vast - and if you want to you can monitor your exercise/activity levels, eating, alcohol intake, sleep, menstrual cycle (that one’s probably just for the women!) - even your moods. It seems we love to know exactly what is going on. But is this always helpful?

Of course if you are trying to lose weight, a relatively accurate measure of how much energy you are using, compared to what you are taking in is a good idea. And fitness apps like fitbit have been demonstrated to help considerably with motivation for people trying to improve general activity levels. As such, if they are effective they can have a beneficial impact on overall health. Some life insurance companies even offer discounts to those willing to share fitness app data with them. 

However, as our use and reliance on such apps starts to explode (some days it feels like everyone I know is wearing one of these activity monitoring bracelets!!), here are 5 risks that we need to watch out for - particularly if you know that you sometimes struggle in these areas:

(1) obsession

Tracking devices are great for helping us remember something we might otherwise neglect - but what when it goes too far the other way? Watch out for the balance between healthy focus and obsession. It is all too easy for some of these ‘healthy’ endeavours to take over your life and actually start to become unhealthily dominant in your mind. If you find yourself worrying about how many steps you are doing, feeling you have to achieve certain things before you can continue with your day, or to avoid a bad outcome, or just checking too often, maybe it is time to take a break.

(2) anxiety

This goes absolutely double for you if you know you are prone to anxiety. One of the risk factors for building anxiety is if we start to use checking behaviours to apparently ‘control’ anxiety by providing reassurance. So, we worry about something, then check it, and feel better - so we think checking has helped. But over time this pattern actually INCREASES anxiety - and the need for that reassurance, and checking behaviour can increase dramatically. Watch out if you know you are starting to become dependent on the reassurance your app gives you, and if you know your checking is driven by anxiety. 
(for more on anxiety check out 'First steps our of anxiety' - you can read the first chapter here)

(3) failure

Resolutions and positive intentions are all very well, but the risk with them is that you can push yourself too far, and place well meaning expectations on yourself that are unrealistic. Then when you feel we have failed, the emotional consequences can be profound - particularly if you are already struggling with depression or anxiety. 

This is a particular risk if you know you are prone to being a perfectionist - pushing yourself very hard and often setting unattainable goals, or continuing to raise a goal until you cannot achieve it. Perfectionists often continue to raise goals until they inevitably fail - which of course can push them to attain great things. But for many it can cause problems with stress, low mood and anxiety - and ultimately mean that they drop out of an activity, or never even try it in the first place. Or, it just becomes a chore instead of a pleasure - something else they have to achieve and risk failing at.

Don’t let your tracker steal the joy form something like walking or cycling, or whatever you are getting into this year. We know there are physical and mental health benefits from increasing activity - particularly if you combine that with getting out into the fresh air. You don’t need to count your steps for that to be effective. Set your aim lower - find a good mate and get out there for 30-45 mins a couple of times a week. Focus more on the conversation than what your app is saying - it will do you just as much (if not more) good!

(Find out more about perfectionism and when it can have a negative impact in Rob and Wills 'The Perfectionism Book')

(4) insomnia

A particular mention here for sleep tracker apps. Sleep is a huge issue in our fast paced, always on, 21st century society. And it is rapidly becoming the most common thing I am asked about. Sleep problems affect people of all ages, from the desperate parents with the toddler who just doesn’t seem to need any, through teenagers who seem to only be able to sleep when they are not supposed to be asleep, to the city workers who try as they might cannot switch off at night. Increasingly I hear from people who in an attempt to resolve their sleep issues have downloaded sleep apps or are using data from fitness trackers to help them. 

If you have found this helpful then please continue to use your sleep app. However, I would recommend the utmost caution in trying to use any device which monitors sleep as an attempt to help with a sleep issue. The fundamental reason is that sleep is a pretty unique biological process where focusing on it too much tends to make it harder to achieve. In fact anyone who has ever gone to bed early, knowing they have a very early start the next day and need to get to sleep quickly will know that the harder we TRY to sleep, often the more elusive it becomes. This effect doubles when we become anxious or stressed about sleep - knowing that we are struggling or might not sleep makes it even harder to relax and detach enough to drop off. 

In this context, having a sleep app under your pillow, or on your arm, or wherever it is increases the risk that you are focusing too much on your sleep (or lack of it). Study after study tells us that the more you monitor your sleep (or wakefulness) the more it will worsen a problem with insomnia - this is why recommendations say not to keep checking the time to see how long you have been awake. The trick to getting to sleep is about NOT thinking about it - and knowing that there’s an app drawing a graph of how poor your sleep is definitely doesn’t help with that!

The second main reason not to use an app is how subjective feelings of tiredness are. We know that if we fake the results of a sleep monitoring device and tell someone they had a terrible night, they will then feel a lot more tired the next day - even if in fact they did not (and vice versa). Sleep apps are notoriously inaccurate and may well tell you you slept a lot worse than you actually did - and reading those results will make you feel worse, as well as most likely increasing your anxiety about any sleep problem you have. 

So use them with real caution, and if you are struggling with sleep, go and chat to your GP and find some more reliable help and support - treatments like CBT and sleep hygiene advice can be very effective, so don’t face longterm sleep issues alone, get some expert help.  

(for more on what to do when you just can't sleep check out 'When sleep won't come')

(5) illness

The final caution comes to those who know they have or have had some specific conditions where tracking apps can become part of illness behaviour and worsen the condition. This specifically relates to those with eating disorders, but also to anyone where obsessional thinking or anxiety has been a strong part of their illness. Be particularly careful if you know this is you. Activity trackers are great, but if they become a chore, or a tool to further limit your eating or extend your exercise then they can become caught up in the thinking patterns that fuel a disorder. Eating disorder charities such as Beat and ABC are reporting a rise in the numbers of people they are speaking to struggling with the role activity tracker and diet monitoring apps play in their illness, so if you are dealing with this, do seek advice from them. 

Love your tracking app, or struggled with it? Like most things it isn’t that these things are all good (or all bad!). And in particular if you know you have no issues or struggles with your emotional or mental health, the overriding effect for you may be positive. But we need to be measured in our use and avoid them ruling our lives - particularly if we know we might have specific weaknesses or risks that they might trigger. Feel free to share your tips for how you have hit the right balance!

Personally though, I avoid them :)

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