Dr Sunil Mittal, a Delhi-based senior consultant psychiatrist, recently saw a young professional in his 30s. He was psychically healthy, but had grave concern about his rising heart rate. He obsessively checked numbers on his health tracker and felt restless if the number of steps taken didn’t get him the desired digits on the gadget. He was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, with his thoughts preoccupied with health anxiety.
Recently, a colleague gave up his fitness band after it started showing that his sleep quality was abysmal – every day. “I began getting a bit worried because I used to feel fairly well-rested in the morning, but my tracker told me otherwise,” he says.
When days are numbered
We humans love stats. In a world where news is being broken down to numbers, your wristband is now your own personal health infographic. While these devices and apps are recent, their psychological impact is still unfolding.
Health devices and apps now make it possible for you to track routine activities like sleep, exercise, diet, heartbeat, breathing rate, steps taken, water intake and what not. There are wearables that work on shock therapy to break bad habits and provide motivation!
Lifestyle expert and psychiatrist Dr Rachna K Singh says, “We now need a gadget to tell us that we had a good workout. We don’t want to listen to our own bodies. If we can’t track it by numbers, it doesn’t mean anything.” For her, it’s a simple case of over dependence on technology.
Mumbai-based holistic health coach and mental fitness expert, Neomee Shah says there is such a thing as “too much monitoring”. She says, “One tends to ignore the actual joy of playing a sport, or a workout session, and just focus on completion of the target.” Just like the weighing machine is a weightloss hopefuls’ albatross, living by numbers can become yours. “When you have a watchdog examining you under a microscope, you tend to be under pressure,” Shah mentions.
Well, but worried
Psychiatrist and psychotherapist Dr Shobhana Mittal says, “The question to ask is, what exactly are you measuring, why are you monitoring these parameters, and what do you intend to do with these numbers?” While someone with health problems like high BP may benefit, Mittal is wary of this constant self-monitoring with repeated checking of one’s own bodily functions. She adds: “Health is a state of physical, mental and social wellbeing. It is unfair to try and reduce it to specific numbers. While these devices may act as motivators, they may also become unpleasant dictators if they become the focus of one’s day.”
In 2015, the British Medical Journal staged a debate on the topic: “Can healthy people benefit from health apps?” Des Spence, a general practitioner from Glasgow, UK, reckoned apps and wearables will be overused by a lot he called “worried well”.
He concludes: “Make no mistake: diagnostic uncertainty ignites extreme anxiety in people.”
Psychiatrist Dr Sanjay Chugh too feels the ‘health bling’ makes humanity waste its time on monitoring life rather than getting on and living it. “One of the commonest causes of anxiety is the pressure of performance or feeling of scrutiny – both parameters fulfilled by this constant health monitoring,” he says. While few will cross over to being obsessed with their wearable, it can trigger off general anxiety.
Chances are, if in a day the target steps have not been met or the calorie intake has not been as per the device, it can lead to negative emotions of regret and guilt. “This can further lead to compensatory mechanisms, like over-exercising or starving, or even overeating,” Mittal adds.
Tracking the tracker
The other fallout, according to Mittal, is announcing one’s ‘performance’ on social media. She says: “This raises an important question: are we exercising to be healthy, or competing with others? This makes the process of exercising similar to “gaming”, which may be addicting at multiple levels.”
Chugh says, “Don’t let the gadget set targets. Stay in control.” Celebrity nutritionist and fitness professional Dr Pallavi Srivastava looks at the bright side: “Monitoring is important as it brings about behavioural changes. If you are watching your stats carefully, you are more likely not to get tempted and go overboard with your diet. But people shouldn’t start living by these numbers.” Dr Sunil Mittal has the last word: “Constant preoccupation with one’s health, is unhealthy.” Period.
Uneasy lies the head that wears the health band