We live in a culture obsessed with goals and self-improvement. We’re often searching for new ways to “hack” our time, optimize our productivity, and even turn walking into a prize, thanks to daily step counts. And technology has provided us with plenty of apps and tools to measure our “success.”
Recently this mindset has seeped into our evening hours. What should be our wind-down and off time has, for some, become fraught with anxiety about getting our best sleep, the perfect seven-to-nine hours we need to be our best selves.
For those who track their sleep, they can see every minor stir overnight while striving for perfect scores.
While healthy restful sleep is, of course, a worthy goal — our minds are sharper, our emotions stronger, and our bodies healthier — after quality sleep. For some people, the quest for perfect sleep has become an actual obsession. And it has a name: orthosomnia. Coined by researchers in a 2017 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, the term stems from “ortho,” meaning straight or correct, and “somnia,” meaning sleep. The researchers wrote that they chose this name because of its similarity to a condition called orthorexia, a preoccupation with healthy eating.
And while it’s not an actual medical diagnosis (at least not yet), it’s become a real issue that’s grown all too familiar to sleep medicine specialists.
The dark side of sleep tracking
The extraordinary rise in popularity of sleep trackers may be a sign that more people are taking their sleep seriously. And that’s a good thing.
The downside: Increasingly sophisticated tracking technology offers not just a bird’s-eye-view rating of your sleep, it gives you dizzying details such as total sleep, deep sleep, REM sleep, sleep efficiency, resting heart rate, and latency (the time it takes you to fall asleep once you’re in bed).
The data breakdown can be really useful, as it offers insight into how certain lifestyle choices affect your sleep. Those who diligently tag behaviors — alcohol consumption, heavy meals, exercise, meditation, travel, awakenings by a child — can quickly see which factors most impact different elements of sleep, both positively and negatively.
But all of this information can enable an obsession with the numbers rather than deepen your understanding of sleep in context.
The notion that we can “achieve” perfect sleep every night is misguided. Unrealistic. Basically impossible, says Dr. Chris Winter, sleep medicine specialist, neurologist, author of “The Sleep Solution” and “The Rested Child,” and host of the podcast “Sleep Unplugged.” And for those with insomnia, obsessing about achieving perfect sleep can make their condition worse.
Why fixating on sleep data can cause sleepless nights
According to the 2017 study, a growing number of patients have been seeking treatment for perceived sleep problems based solely on data from their sleep trackers. They were taking their sleep tracking reports and turning them into “a perfectionistic quest for the ideal sleep in order to optimize daytime function,” wrote lead researcher Kelly Glazer Baron, Ph.D.
One male study patient whose average sleep duration was seven hours and 45 minutes, according to his tracker data, said he felt pressure every night to ensure his tracker displayed at least eight hours of sleep. ”He attributed symptoms of fragmented sleep to poor sleep quality rather than elevated anxiety, and rebuffed the suggestion of trying psychotherapy to help manage his stress, believing that treatment wouldn’t be helpful for his sleep problems,” according to the report.
Winter says he saw patients who purchased a tracker that simply thought being aware of their sleep measurements would somehow magically improve sleep quality without any action on their part. “I asked them, ‘Did you think a tracker’s mere presence on your wrist was going to improve your sleep by 15%?’” He’s also seen patients who started using their sleep trackers to become better informed about various aspects of their sleep, only to become excessively preoccupied with the data — for instance, fixating on awakenings that they noticed on their tracker but couldn’t recall — rather than tuning in to whether or not they felt rested.
“Getting anxious about not sleeping or trying to force sleep is never helpful or successful,” Winter says. “All it does is create added stress. Sleep can’t be forced, it has to unfold, and your body has to be in a relaxed state. If your mind is fixated on your data and what it ‘should’ look like, you’ll self-sabotage the sleep process.” Winter is adamant that sleep will occur. “It’s going to unfold the way it’s going to unfold, and you can’t work too hard to control it.”
Sleep isn’t perfect, and neither is your sleep data
Just as there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to diet or exercise, there’s some variability in individual sleep patterns.
Sleep trackers can sidestep that individuality by providing information based on an interpretation of average, desirable sleep patterns, which are then offered to users. “That’s a difficult concept for people to understand,” Winter explains. For those whose habits don’t fall into generalized sleep patterns, the numbers can “fall short” when, in fact, the person is experiencing their best rest.
Companies that manufacture sleep trackers often compare the data they provide to polysomnography (PSG), the measurements used in sleep studies. And while the PSG may be the gold standard when it comes to sleep measurement, “it’s based on lots of little tests, all of which together provide a more accurate, complete sleep picture,” Winter says. But even PSG can be prone to error. “Plus, the data is only as good as the technician who’s reading it,” Winter says.
“Worrying about sleep is actually the most counterproductive thing you can do, even if tech manufacturers try to tell you otherwise,” Winter says.
How to read your sleep data
Sleep data can be a really useful tool when you see how your numbers are influenced by lifestyle behaviors or if it’s viewed as a glimpse into your sleep patterns. “Making the connection between your habits and your data and well-being is the best way to use a sleep tracker,” Winter says.
Using your data to figure out how your behaviors influence your sleep is really the key to unlocking your sleep health.
For example, if you experience long latency, you may be trying to go to bed too early. If you tag and track your habits, noticing not only what you eat and drink and when, but also how you sleep on days you work out or are more active, or when you practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation before going to bed, you can gather data points to inform your best days.
We all aspire to do well and be better in life, whatever that means to us. Exploring areas for self-improvement is not inherently bad. The danger lies when we’re drawn to optimization tools because we don’t trust ourselves to figure things out on our own.
Sometimes, what we’re looking to “fix,” doesn’t need fixing at all.
Tips to encourage healthy, restful sleep
Here are things to try to see if they make a difference in your sleep quality.
Get morning sunlight
When it comes to sleep, the most important thing for setting your biological clock is to get at least a few minutes of sunlight in your eyes when you wake up, according to Andrew Huberman, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine. Morning light signals the brain to kick off cortisol production and stop melatonin production, letting your body know that your day has started.
Wake up at approximately the same time each morning
According to Winter, “A regular morning wake-up time is one of the best things you can do to set yourself up for a night of good sleep.” A fixed wake-up time helps set your circadian rhythm and build a stronger sleep drive throughout the day.
Pay more attention to how you feel than what the sleep tracker tells you
If you feel like you do fine on seven-and-a-half hours of sleep, then don’t spend eight hours in bed. “Don’t judge sleep just by duration; what counts is the quality,” Winter says. “The hands-down best way to determine whether you got a good night’s rest is to gauge how you feel throughout the day. If you’re able to function until bedtime, maybe with a natural dip in the afternoon, you probably got enough sleep.”
Maybe ditch the tracker!
Do a digital detox and take a break from your tech! If the numbers are haunting your dreams, put your ring or strap or watch away for a week and tune in to how you feel. Don’t let the numbers dictate that.