TO TRACK OR NOT TO TRACK?
Thanks to the highly advanced technology we carry in our pockets, keeping track of the various aspects of our day-to-day lives has never been easier. That’s especially true for health. There really is an app for everything, from monitoring your sleep quality to calculating your food macros to tracking your chronic pain flare-ups (hi!).
When we supply these apps with information about our symptoms, our environment and our daily habits, they can start to pick out patterns over time. Does your pain spin out of control when it’s rainy? Does your tummy always seem to hurt after you eat bread? Is your fatigue worse when you don’t leave the house? And so on.
With this info, we can get a much clearer idea of what makes us feel good and what triggers our symptoms. More importantly, we can start to anticipate these triggers and gain greater control over them. For example, if Weather Flare learns that hot weather triggers your fatigue, you’ll get notifications for an upcoming heatwave, along with tailored advice for managing your symptoms.
Symptom tracking also helps you to communicate with your doctor and other care providers. Chronic pain is notoriously misunderstood, and we may not always have the words, the confidence or the energy to advocate for our treatment. Having a handy summary of your experiences to present to your doctor can remove that barrier to communication and get you the care you need.
Keeping track of your symptoms can also help you and your doctor to understand if treatments or medications are having the desired effect. When you’re in the middle of a pain flare-up or you’re fighting the dreaded brain fog, it can be hard to remember to take your medication in the first place, let alone remember how it made you feel! With a tracking app, you don’t have to worry about either.
When you’re up against chronic illness, every little helps. However, symptom tracking has a dark side, too. Some people find that tracking can become something of an obsession. Not only is fixating on every detail of your day a recipe for anxiety, but it can actively make your condition worse.
The Nocebo Effect
Meet the placebo effect’s evil twin! Just like believing you’re doing something positive for your health can produce the perceived effect, dwelling on negative symptoms can make them more pronounced. In other words, if you’re hyper-aware of your symptoms, you’ll will them into existence.
Let’s say you’ve tracked your symptoms religiously for months, and every time the temperature drops you get a killer migraine. Your brain’s in-built defence system will start to anticipate a headache every time you feel a little chilly, and before you know it you’ll be reaching for the ibuprofen.
Even if your symptoms don’t materialise as expected, just the anticipation of a flare-up can leave you full of anxiety. And if you faithfully enter your data every day but no patterns emerge, you could find yourself even more frustrated than when you started.
So should you avoid symptom trackers?
We believe that apps like Weather Flare have an important place in the self-management of chronic pain and illness, and we’ve experienced the benefits first-hand. That said, you can have too much of a good thing!
We recommend using your apps mindfully and paying attention to how you feel about the practice of tracking. For example:
Are you spending excessive amounts of time on the app?
Do you get anxious if you can’t track your symptoms or you miss a day?
Are you incredibly specific about the data you enter?
Do you spend lots of time examining minute details or patterns in the data?
Do you get stressed or anxious if you don’t see the patterns or results you expect (e.g. if your pain isn’t improving despite eliminating a known trigger)?
Do you get upset if you feel the data shows you’ve done or not done something to trigger a symptom?
Do you ever try to compensate for this in a way that could be considered harmful or excessive?
If tracking your symptoms starts to make you feel anxious or upset, or it interferes with aspects of your daily life, it may be time to take a step back. Remember that symptom trackers like Weather Flare are there to provide a snapshot of your health and offer you advice, but they’re not a replacement for self-care or medical treatment. They can empower you to take positive action to improve your health, but only if you use them as intended.