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You’re doing all you can to rest well and avoid insomnia but could your quest for ‘perfect’ sleep actually be keeping you awake?
We all know how essential sleep is to our overall wellbeing – fitful nights of disrupted shuteye or late nights coupled with early mornings can leave us feeling distinctly under par. The science shows that continued sleep deprivation can lead to serious health problems including weakened immunity, diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as having a detrimental effect on brain function and mental health.
According to NICE, around a third of adults in Western countries experience sleep problems at least once a week. An estimated 6-10% have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or waking too early coupled with impaired function and wellbeing in the day (the classic definition of insomnia) – with women up to twice as likely to suffer from it than men.
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It’s no wonder such a huge sleep health industry (estimated to be worth $518 billion/£430 bn globally) has sprung up to meet our need for blissful zzzz’s, with all manner of remedies, courses, apps and gadgets promising to shape up our ‘sleep fitness’ and help us drift off to dreamland.
But our obsession with a getting a good night’s rest could actually be causing more harm than good. When does an interest in sleep tip over into unhealthy behaviour? Could the root cause of your insomnia be a different disorder altogether: are you an orthosomniac?
What is orthsomnia?
The relatively recent phenomenon of orthosomnia (a term first used in a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine) is not classed as an official sleep disorder but defined as an unhealthy obsession with achieving optimal sleep, driven mainly by an over-reliance on sleep tracking data. This behaviour then leads to heightened levels of anxiety and subsequently poor quality sleep.
“In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in sleep tracking devices and with it the potential for an unhealthy obsession with trying to achieve the perfect sleep score,” Dr Guy Meadows, co-founder and clinical lead of Sleep School, tells Stylist.
“Don’t believe everything your sleep tracker tells you – they’re not 100% accurate. In fact, when it comes to measuring actual sleep stages – such as how much time you spend in light, deep and REM sleep – research suggests that most trackers have a mean absolute percentage error of between 20% and 40% when compared to a clinical sleep study.”
Yet some of us can’t stop checking our sleep stats. “The main issue with such behaviour is that it can place a lot of unnecessary pressure on our ability to sleep, something which inadvertently pushes sleep further away,” adds Dr Meadows.
“It’s important to remember that sleep is a natural biological process that can’t be controlled – you can’t turn it on and off like a switch. Any attempts to force ourselves into better sleep, often backfire.”
NHS GP Dr Anita Raja classifies orthosomnia as “behaviour-induced sleep difficulty” due to an excessive reliance on sleep tracker data, and a manifestation of anxiety. “Digital information overload can be detrimental to our ability to switch off. Also, the reliability of these trackers is questionable, especially in people with underlying insomnia or sleep apnoea. Who wants an app to reassure you whether you’ve had a good night’s sleep?”
If you’re an orthosomniac, Dr Raja explains that you will experience typical disrupted sleep symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, anxiety and feeling unrefreshed after waking up.
But it’s not just the effect on your physical and mental health. Orthosomnia could also affect your work life, social life and relationships.
Since wearing a fitness tracker with a sleep metric, media professional Amy* (28) has become fixated on achieving the perfect night’s rest. “I’m absolutely obsessed with how much sleep I get. I try and keep my sleep length in increments of 90 minutes as I’m aware this is better for your circadian rhythm, but I’ve actively stopped looking at my Apple Watch to monitor sleep as it would almost shape my mood that day.
“If it said my sleep was poor that night, I would feel more anxious through the day and the following night – it’s a vicious cycle.”
In response to her sleep data, Amy became overly reliant on props and habits to help improve her sleep score. “I can’t sleep without very specific adjustments – I have to have complete darkness, the right room temperature, ear plugs, pillow spray, specific bedding…
“I hate staying out past 9pm because I feel I need enough time when I get home to wind down, so I often leave gatherings early. As I work in the media industry there’s a lot of antisocial hours for events and networking, so I often struggle with these. My fiancé and I have even had arguments about my sleeping patterns because I’m so precious about it.”
How to overcome orthosomnia
If you think your interest in sleep health is getting a little out of hand, you can act now to get a handle on it. Dr Meadows acknowledges that keeping tabs on your sleep patterns is a useful part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but having a relaxed attitude to the results can help keep orthosomnia at bay.
Take a break from tracking your sleep
“Enjoy the benefits that come with sleep tracking… but if you feel that you’re becoming addicted to sleep tracking – if it’s the first thing you check in the morning when you wake up – then it might be time to take a break from it for a week or so.
“Allow yourself to trust in your natural ability to sleep well, rather than relying on technology.”
Focus on good sleep hygiene
Dr Raja believes tried and tested methods for improving sleep hygiene are worth focusing on for quality rest.
“You should revert to traditional evidence-based practices such as implementing a regular sleep schedule, avoiding caffeine in the evenings, removing electronic devices from the bedroom, and practicing methods to reduce stress and anxiety.
Try talking therapies
In more extreme cases, she recommends trying cognitive-behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBTI). “Speak to your doctor who can conduct a thorough evaluation to diagnose a sleep disorder.”
She warns: “Any form of obsession can be a manifestation of underlying OCD or obsessive behavioural problems. From a clinical perspective, it’s vital that we look at an individual’s background history and link this to previous obsessive or compulsive behavioural patterns so we can manage the root cause.”
*Names have been changed.
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