Our Obsession With Sleeping Well Is Stopping Us From Sleeping

Photo by Adam Kuylenstierna/Eyeem
For many of us, a midweek morning routine consists of a couple of alarm snoozes, a fairly lengthy Instagram scroll, a cup of PG Tips and a hefty dose of dry shampoo. But for 29-year-old London-based yoga teacher Indi, it’s a different story. For the last three months, Indi’s routine on waking has been to check her smartwatch for feedback on how she’d slept. She’d then feel frustrated and inevitably exhausted for the rest of the day as the stats on the screen glaringly told her she’d had just four hours and 41 minutes of 'deep sleep'.
Indi says she bought her fitness tracking watch to measure her activity levels but, having always been a poor sleeper, decided to give its slumber tracking credentials a go. In the last few years she's tried everything from the science-approved (meditation) to the more holistic (think: valerian root supplements, CBD, moon milk) but nothing’s worked. "I thought my watch would help me," she says, "but it ended up having the opposite effect."
She says the stats were interesting at first but quickly became an obsession. "I found myself under pressure to fall asleep and stay asleep, just so it would show good results. It was stressful knowing something was there monitoring my sleep. I was constantly waking up and conscious of not moving around too much when I was in bed." At around the three-week mark, Indi noticed the quantity, and quality, of her sleep had plummeted.
Like Indi, us Brits have become a nation obsessed with our snooze time and business is booming, not just in the sleep tracker department. According to a 2017 report, the sleep-health industry is worth $40bn, growing by more than 8% globally every year. From £500 breath-synced sleep robots to thermo-regulating PJs and soothing smart rings, the latest insomnia-busting tech promises the perfect night’s sleep. Millions of us are tuning into meditation app Calm’s Sleep Stories on a nightly basis; Blue Gold, the app’s most popular slumber-inducing fable, narrated by Stephen Fry, has been listened to over 15 million times.

If your sleep tracker tells you you’ve had four hours of poor quality sleep – even if the truth is far from this – the chances are this will psychologically impact your mood, energy levels and productivity the following day.

Dr Nicola Barclay
But as gadgets proliferate, so do concerns. Like hitting your daily steps or counting macros on MyFitnessPal, sleep has fast become yet another metric we’re tracking via our tech, and it appears we may be taking it a little too seriously. Meet: orthosomnia, a term coined in a 2017 case report in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. The word stems from 'ortho' meaning straight or correct, and 'somnia' meaning sleep. In short, it’s a condition affecting those who obsess over their sleep. The researchers chose the term, they write, "because the perfectionist quest to achieve perfect sleep is similar to the unhealthy preoccupation with healthy eating, termed orthorexia".
Like orthorexia, orthosomnia is not yet a recognised disorder, although Dr Nicola Barclay, lecturer in sleep medicine at the University of Oxford, believes the tide is turning. "Orthosomnia is a genuine condition and a real worry, especially as people rely increasingly on sleep trackers, most of which are wildly inaccurate, giving a very poor estimate of your real sleep. If your sleep tracker tells you you’ve had four hours of poor quality sleep – even if the truth is far from this – the chances are this will psychologically impact your mood, energy levels and productivity the following day. It’s this reliance that creates a vicious cycle and will negatively impact on your sleep," she explains.
Barclay’s other issue with sleep trackers is their inability to decipher individual sleep needs. "We’ve become fixated on eight hours of sleep as the Holy Grail but this is a counterproductive fixation. The majority of us need between six-and-a-half to eight hours' sleep every night, but it’s not the case for everyone. Some might only need four or five hours." Plus, you might not actually be as sleep deprived as the headlines say. We may not get enough quality sleep, but the average nightly slumber hasn’t changed much over the last 100 years – around seven hours has been the average for decades.
So should we ditch the sleep tracker? Quite possibly. Orthosomnia appears to be one symptom of an industry that has left us mere mortals with more data than we know what to do with. If you already suffer from insomnia, it could be a recipe for disaster. Barclay explains that the typical insomniac is a type-A personality, and daily stats reminding you of your sleep shortcomings may well exacerbate these perfectionist tendencies.
If you think you may be suffering from orthosomnia, it pays to go back to basics. Dr Julius Bourke, consultant neuropsychiatrist at Re:Cognition Health, emphasises the importance of establishing a solid sleep routine without a sleep tracker. "Stop relying on tech and create consistency in the run-up to bedtime. A bath, bedtime story and lullaby is a classic example of a good routine – remember we all had to learn to sleep the way we expect to as adults. Our brains respond well to these cues, whether we are infants or adults." His number one tip? Aim for the same 'lights out' time every night and set your alarm for the same time each morning – no weekend lie-ins allowed (these can wreak havoc with circadian rhythms, FYI).
Is there ever a place for a sleep tracker? The jury’s out. Both Barclay and Bourke say a certain level of number crunching can be beneficial to those looking to brush up on their sleep hygiene, just be sure to take any 'sleep scores' with a pinch of salt. A healthier, and arguably more sustainable practice, is to keep a sleep diary, monitoring snooze patterns and behaviour with, believe it or not, a pen and paper. You heard it here first.

More from Mind

R29 Original Series