How Getting a Smart Watch Affected My OCD


Last year, I got a fitness band that tracks your steps. I was looking at more expensive bands and smart watches, but in the end decided to get a cheaper band to see how I got on with it, possibly progressing to a more sophisticated one later.

My wife and one of my friends both said it was a bad idea for me to get one, but I thought it would just be a bit of fun. It turned out they were right. I have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and my OCD revolves around rules and measuring things. As a teenager, I had obsessively counted all the fat I ate. Before I got the fitness band, I had become fixated on exercise after a trainer at my gym told me I should be doing two and a half hours of exercise a week, which I then started tracking obsessively. And of course, I also became obsessed with the fitness tracker.

Even after a few days of wearing it, I could tell my relationship with it was becoming unhealthy. It was set to vibrate after you walked 10,000 steps in a day. Soon, I was freaking out if I didn’t walk the 10,000 steps, and would go out and do things like walk up and down the same road until I achieved the target. Without it, I panicked that I would get fat. It was the same problem I had with exercise. Counting my steps had become a compulsion and I couldn’t resist it, it made me so anxious not to do it.

I once went to the post office to buy stamps and there was a queue. After a few minutes I left without the stamps because I was getting really panicky because I wasn’t walking.

After a few weeks, my wife took the fitness band off me. Unfortunately, by then it was too late. I was hooked and found other ways to achieve the compulsion. I walked 100 steps and timed on my phone how long it took me to do them. Then I decided that to achieve my 10,000 target on every week day (I allowed myself weekends off), I would need to walk for five hours and 20 minutes every week. This number took into account my two and a half hours of exercise a week, as I read that would count toward the total. I then began to use the stopwatch function on my phone every time I walked. I’d start it when I walked and stop it when I stopped to wait for a car to cross a road or if I stopped to talk to a friend or anything like that. I’d panic if I thought I had timed seconds I hadn’t actually walked, and would walk for a few seconds with the timer off to account for those.

Once I got to five hours and 20 minutes in a week, I could relax and walk without the stopwatch.

At the beginning of every week, I’d work out how much walking I would do that week getting to and from work and anywhere else I was going and then figure out how many lunchtimes I needed to go out walking and exactly for how long. This planning was a compulsion in itself. Several times a day I’d worry I’d worked it out wrong and go over it again and again in my head.

If I had a day off work, I’d have to go out and walk on that day too. If I’d planned to walk home from the train station and my wife suggested picking me up instead, I’d get into a complete panic. I’d plan every week around the walking, how many lunchtimes I could go out and how many I could have lunch with friends.

I was losing weight doing all of this. It was starting to become dangerous.

When I started cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for my OCD a few months ago, I knew I would have to resist the timing. The thought scared me a lot. I was so scared of getting fat. I thought if I didn’t time the walking, I wouldn’t do enough and would put on loads of weight.

We started small. My therapist agreed that stopping timing immediately would be too hard, so I had a few weeks where I still timed but planned to do less than five hours and 20 minutes. However, it didn’t work. Each week I’d end up doing more because I met with friends and naturally had to walk, or went to the shops and realized that I was there for hours and would have walked a lot. This made me realize that I might naturally be doing more walking in a week than I thought. So I decided to take the next step and stop the timing. I did it, and it actually proved to be easier than I thought. It was the idea of doing it that was terrifying, but in reality, it was OK.

I had been timing for a year, and it was so refreshing to be able to walk without measuring it constantly. However, I still have issues with it. There are days when I start to automatically try and work out in my head how long I’ve walked for that week. I try and ignore them and focus on something else. I also realized recently that, even though I’m not physically timing, I still have a routine of sorts. I used to go out walking roughly two lunchtimes a week. Now, I still have to do at least one. I realized it was a problem when I had to tell a friend I couldn’t see him for lunch that week. In fact, I did have one spare lunchtime, but I had to walk and the thought of skipping it scared me. And when I went out that lunchtime, I walk around for the whole half an hour. I’ll walk for 15 minutes in one direction, then turn around and walk 15 minutes back. My therapist told me that’s OK, there are always steps in fighting OCD and sometimes it will take a while to be ready for the next step.

I was looking forward to getting my fitness band back or getting a new fancy smart watch. But part of my recovery is accepting that I have a tendency to measure and time things and that anything that helps me do that is a bad idea, as I’m not capable of having a healthy relationship with it. At least not yet. I feel jealous when I see people with them, particularly because I love gadgets, but I need to look after my health and for now that means staying away from things like this. So there won’t be a smart watch for me under the Christmas tree this year.

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