What Is Orthosomnia & How Can You Tell If You Have It?

Photographed by Ben Ritter.
We've all been there: You're lying in bed, ready to get some rest for a big day ahead, only to find that sleep just won't come. It's bad enough to not get enough rest, but if you've ever gotten anxious over losing sleep, you know how frustrating it is when that anxiety just makes your sleep deprivation even worse.
And actually, if you're constantly tracking the hours of sleep you get and obsessing about it, you might have a condition that researchers are calling orthosomnia.
Kelly G. Baron, PhD, a researcher in the sleep disorders program in the Department of Behavioural Sciences at Rush University Medical Center, says that she and her fellow researchers coined the term to refer to a situation in which people are so focused on their sleep trackers and what they tracked per night that it actually interferes with their sleep.

Is Sleep-Tracking Bad?

Last year, Dr. Baron co-authored a study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine that looked at how apps that track how much sleep you get (like Sleep Cycle) can actually be linked to poorer sleep quality.
"As sleep trackers are getting more and more popular, we were finding that there’s a selection of people who were taking the data way too seriously, and in a lot of ways it was actually undermining what they needed to be doing to improve their sleep," Dr. Baron says. "They were so worried about getting an exact number of hours of sleep that it was creating bad habits, like trying to lay in bed longer when they weren’t sleeping, or even just thinking, If I don’t have this particular number of hours of sleep, then I can’t feel good."
Though orthosomnia isn't an official term in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and can't exactly be diagnosed yet, Dr. Baron says that a sign that your sleep tracker is getting in the way of actual sleep is if you put more stock into what the app says than how you actually feel.

Should I Stop Tracking My Sleep?

Not if you can track it while being reasonable. "In the end, I think people need to realize that [trackers] are an estimation of your sleep," she says, adding that while some apps are better at tracking than others, "across the board, the claims of the devices go far beyond what they’re able to actually do."

A sign that your sleep tracker is getting in the way of actual sleep is if you put more stock into what the app says than how you actually feel.

That being said, even if you're not tracking how many hours of sleep you get per night, most people can probably relate to feeling as if not getting enough rest is the be-all, end-all for feeling functional (read: not cranky) the next day. But Dr. Baron says that while sleep really is important, there are plenty of other factors that will affect how you feel on any given day.
"Sleep is really complicated," she says. "How you feel during the day relates to how much you sleep, but also to a lot of other factors about what you’re doing during the day, your general health, how much sunlight you’re getting, and your mood."

Am I Doomed If I Don't Sleep Enough?

So if you had a night (or two) of bad sleep, remember that it's not the end of the world. And if you're finding yourself getting too invested in your sleep tracker, it may be worth taking a break. It's not that sleep trackers are a bad thing, but you have to be careful not to overestimate what they can tell you about your health.
"Like all healthy behaviors, you need to take it with a grain of salt," Dr. Baron says. "You do the best you can and understand that there are limitations to what these apps tell you."
The bottom line, she says, is that sleep should be measured in weeks or months, not individual nights. If your sleep patterns are out of whack for at least three times a week for three months or longer, that could be a sign of insomnia (which is a health condition). As always, you'll want to check with a doctor if you're concerned about your health, but if you're tossing around for just a night or two, it's probably nothing to worry about.

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