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FitBits and anxiety - A story from my Harley Street anxiety hypnotherapy clinic

Posted on 24 May 2018

A client of mine, who I will call Jane wanted me to share her story with you, it starts with a FitBit and ends with a big change.

Jane walked into my anxiety hypnotherapy clinic in Harley Street a few weeks ago, sat down, breathed a deep sigh and waggled her wrist at me. “It’s this thing, it’s taken over and now I’m anxious ALL the time. Can you tell me what to do!” The ‘thing’ on her wrist was a FitBit.

Her best friend had given it to her for her 40th birthday, Jane explained to me. Her friend, who was always supportive to Jane through her periods of anxiety, thought she was doing her a favour. She had read an article, probably a bit like this one, which said you could use a FitBit to help with stress, anxiety spikes and even panic attacks.

The argument goes like this, by wearing a FitBit, or other fitness tracker, you can track your heart rate, which, as we all know, is an indicator of how stressed you are. Over the days, you will be able to see when your stress levels go up and take appropriate action to avoid those difficult times.

Perhaps for some people this does work, but for Jane it seemed to have done more harm than good.

She told me what had happened. She had become so focused on what her heart rate was doing that it was scaring her. She had begun to restrict where she went and what she did and even disclosed that she was now often afraid of having a heart attack. On top of that most of the fun and enjoyment which she had previously got out of exercising and eating had gone.

Jane is a healthy slim woman who likes dancing and swimming, but since she had got her FitBit she admitted to becoming ‘a bit obsessed’ with walking 10,000 steps a day, even if that meant she missed her dance class! Whereas previously she had eaten a balanced diet, but enjoyed the odd cake and takeaway, she had now begun to monitor closely the nutritional content of everything she ate. Sometimes this had got to the point where she missed family meals and ate a different dish alone in the kitchen.

This was making her miserable, and she felt she had become ‘sort of dependent’ on the FitBit.  She told me she had gone several days without it, but this had made her even more anxious, she felt her heart might be ‘misbehaving’ and her nutritional balance might be wrong and she wouldn’t know, and that felt scary.

I had heard about this sort of problem before. There is a good side to fitness apps as they can encourage a more active and healthier lifestyle, but there is some evidence that, for some people, they can lead to obsessive and unhealthy behaviours.

Don’t let a tracker become your boss

A personal trainer from San Francisco, Jonathan Jordan, puts it very well in this article. He says: “it’s unhealthy when people look at their tracker as though their boss has just sent them an email saying they are in trouble.” I loved that, when you are reacting to a bit of technology as if it is your boss, then it is time to think again.

Trackers are now so sophisticated they can give you absolutely loads of information. The problem is that it can be inaccurate (there is some research showing that even top line trackers can be up to 20 percent out when tracking heart rate) and, if you do not have medical knowledge, you may misinterpret the information they give you. I work a lot with doctors and I know one of their mantras is that everyone is an individual and you have to look at tests in context. That takes years of training, not a tracker.

The technique of reframing

I discussed this with Jane and I could see her visibly relax as she came to understand why her tracker was not doing her much good. But she didn’t want to just junk it, she said: “I feel that would be a backward step, I don’t want to give up understanding my anxiety and learning to control it.”

That took us to a much more interesting place. I was interested to note the Jane described herself as “an anxious person,” or “naturally anxious,” – for her it was an important part, if not a very welcome part, of her identity, of her personality.

I used a range of techniques to help Jane see things from a different point of view.  We worked over the period of a few session and Jane was able to make the changes in her way of thinking and behaviour.  She says she feels calmer and happier than she has ever felt in her life. She also says she never expected such a change, “I only came to you because I was fed up with my FitBit and you changed everything,” she says.

That’s why I love my job, together we can get results, wherever you are starting from.


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