Orthosomnia, When the Obsession with Sleeping Well Prevents You from Doing So

Orthosomnia is a trend characterized by the obsession with sleeping well that becomes counterproductive. Learn more in today's article.
Orthosomnia, When the Obsession with Sleeping Well Prevents You from Doing So

Last update: 02 January, 2023

Smart watches, mobile phones, and other devices allow access to general wellness tools. Heart rate monitors, blood pressure, and sleep patterns are just a few of the features intended to promote a healthy lifestyle. However, sometimes their excessive use can be counterproductive, and the best example is found in orthosomnia, an obsession with sleeping well that prevents you from doing so.

You may not have heard of this term, partly because it was only coined a couple of years ago. It alludes to the obsession with sleeping well; which often revolves around the use of devices that collect information about sleep quality. Contrary to the intention, the affected party ends up compromising their rest period.

The characteristics of orthosomnia

The term orthosomnia was coined by a group of researchers from Rush University Medical College and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in a paper presented in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

It’s made up of the etymons ortho (‘correct’, ‘precise’) and somnia (‘dream’). In this regard, orthosomnia is the obsession with sleeping well. The term is similar to orthorexia (an obsession with eating healthy).

As the term is relatively recent, there are very few rigorous scientific studies on its characteristics. As the Sleep Foundation warns, it’s not a formal disorder, but for the moment, it remains a trend or trait.

It’s not a manifestation of insomnia, as it’s distinguished from it by the desire to achieve perfect sleep. Paradoxically, in the process, rest itself ends up being compromised.

The obsession revolves around the use of sleep measurement devices. For example, applications that record data while the person sleeps. Most of these tools collect insight into sleep quality based on estimated time spent in deep sleep, awakenings, breathing rate, heart rate, and other values.

Some users can become obsessed with improving their statistics, which leads them to implement a series of changes in their routine. These changes, instead of translating into an improvement in your night’s rest, end up hindering the actual quality of your sleep.

The affected person doesn’t associate their changes in routine with their decline in sleep quality. Rather, they think that they’re not doing everything they should to improve the scores collected by the measuring device.

The symptoms of orthosomnia

A woma who's awake in the middle of the night.
People affected by orthosomnia often experience a lot of frustration and anxiety in the face of the inability to sleep as they wish.

Excessive concern about sleeping well leads to compromised rest time. One of the direct consequences is that episodes of insomnia and other sleep disorders develop. Even in the absence of these, the concern itself triggers a series of signs that compromise the person’s well-being. We’ll review some common symptoms of orthosomnia:

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Difficulty memorizing things
  • Signs of anxiety
  • Signs of depression
  • Feelings of muscular discomfort
  • Headaches
  • Frequent awakenings throughout the night
  • Trouble paying attention
  • An increased sensation of pain
  • Sensitivity to external noises

All these symptoms arise from the obsession with obtaining restful sleep. We can’t speak of orthosomnia without the manifestation of this trait, and it won’t always be associated with the use of electronic devices (smartwatches and mobile phones). Certainly, the person can measure their sleep patterns in other ways apart from objective data collection.

In any case, those who evaluate their night’s sleep develop the habit of obsessively checking their patterns against those of the night before. They pathologically review the data in search of a value that indicates an improvement or deterioration of the results.

In the study cited at the beginning, the researchers reported a case of a 40-year-old man who showed excessive concern because his average sleep duration was 7 hours and 45 minutes, and not the 8 hours with which he felt more refreshed.

The causes of orthosomnia

The causes of orthosomnia aren’t well known, although it’s generally believed that it stems from an obsession with a healthy lifestyle. It’s for this reason that those who manifest it can develop an obsession with eating healthy (orthorexia) and an obsession with playing sports.

In all these cases, the daily recommendations are taken to the extreme, all with the intention of enhancing the healthy benefits that are obtained from them.

An average of 8 hours of night rest is recommended for a healthy lifestyle. Many people take these recommendations very strictly so that when they fail to meet the exact time, they manifest an obsession with doing so. This leads them to use devices to measure their sleep quality or implement a registry of another type to evaluate it.

Sometimes the behavior can be a consequence of anxiety. For example, from obsessive compulsive disorder. It can also be an illness anxiety disorder, known until recently as hypochondriasis.

Certainly, sometimes those affected are carried away by the data from digital tools and not by their own sleep experience. As a result, they can assimilate symptoms or traits that match what the application data reflects.

Treatment options

A woman rejecting a cup of coffee.
There are many sleep hygiene habits that can be implemented to help you sleep better and prevent the obsession with sleeping well and focusing too much on objective sleep parameters.

Considering that the condition has just been described, there’s no standard treatment to address it. However, this isn’t very different from others that are used for episodes of obsession and sleep disorders. The first thing people should know is that tools to measure sleep quality aren’t 100% reliable.

In fact, the FDA doesn’t regulate sleep trackers, and some of the factual data provided by apps of this type is iffy, to say the least. This is due to the ambiguous methods with which the information is collected. For all of these reasons, researchers continue to warn about their limitations, which can lead users to assimilate half-truths or data that’s directly erroneous.

Once it’s understood that the information from these tools isn’t completely objective or reliable, a series of habits that contribute to the quality of sleep must be assimilated. The average for adults is to sleep from 7 to 9 hours a day, although the actual rest time depends on the specific need of the moment. We’ll leave you with some tips to ensure a peaceful sleep:

  • Stick to a consistent time for going to bed and waking up.
  • Reduce the intake of coffee, alcohol, and energy drinks during the day.
  • Avoid large meals just before going to sleep.
  • Avoid drinking large amounts of water before going to bed.
  • Optimize your room to improve the sleeping experience. Adjust the climate with a fan, air conditioning, or heating, block the amount of light that enters the room, buy an ergonomic mattress, and so on.
  • Reduce the use of electronic devices at least an hour before going to sleep.
  • Avoid very long naps throughout the day.

In the event that an anxiety disorder is hidden behind the behavior, it’s very important to consult a professional psychologist. The sequelae of orthosomnia compromise the person’s psychological and physical well-being, so seeking help and implementing the above advice shouldn’t be postponed for very long.

  • Ananth S. Sleep apps: current limitations and challenges. Sleep Sci. 2021 Jan-Mar;14(1):83-86.
  • Baron KG, Abbott S, Jao N, Manalo N, Mullen R. Orthosomnia: Are Some Patients Taking the Quantified Self Too Far? J Clin Sleep Med. 2017 Feb 15;13(2):351-354.

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