By Jo Hartley – www.smh.com.au
Waking up, I roll over and click on my watch. Last night was a good night. My watch tells me I slept for eight hours straight and was restless for a minimal time. The data brings relief to the anxiety I felt yesterday when I woke up to a different report.
In my pursuit of the ultimate night’s sleep, I admit I’ve become a little obsessed. In fact, like a growing number of people, I’m suffering orthosomnia. This term was coined in a 2017 case report in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, with researchers choosing it “because the perfectionist quest to achieve perfect sleep is similar to the unhealthy preoccupation with healthy eating, termed orthorexia”.
Aside from the issues associated with sleep obsession, a lack of sleep also negatively impacts on physical and mental health.Credit:Stocksy
“We know that a lot of people track their sleep via wearables, and a subsection of these become a bit obsessed,” says Professor Dorothy Bruck, Chair of the Sleep Health Foundation. “Certain personality types, such as perfectionists, will monitor their sleep more avidly and over the longer term.”
Similarly, Bruck notes that vulnerable people who have various health issues are prone to overthinking sleep and analysing their health. The result? Orthosomnia.
“You can’t force yourself to go to sleep, as much as you can’t force yourself to digest a biscuit faster – it’s a physiological process,” says Bruck. “When sleep is forced, it becomes like a performance, and people develop performance anxiety.”
This anxiety increases as individuals fear catastrophic consequences will occur if they don’t get enough sleep.
“When sleep is forced, it becomes like a performance, and people develop performance anxiety.”
Professor Dorothy Bruck, Chair of the Sleep Health Foundation.
“We see it often,” Bruck says. “In the middle of the night, people with worries wake and try to problem-solve. But that’s the time when the rational part of the brain is disengaged, so instead people end up catastrophising.”
Bruck notes that performance anxiety also relates to unrealistic expectations and people’s ignorance around sleep cycles. In a recent study conducted by the Sleep Health Foundation, 70 per cent of people charted sleep as a U shape. This represented falling asleep, a continuous deep sleep and morning waking. This is inaccurate, says Bruck, who describes sleep as a roller-coaster, with regular waking.
“From an evolutionary point of view, it was normal for us to wake for survival reasons – to ward off evil spirits, enemies or predators,” she says.
“Every hour and a half we come into a lighter sleep, before falling back into a deeper one again. The pattern repeats, and during the second half of the night, we sleep lighter and are more likely to wake after the deeper sleep.”
Aside from the issues associated with sleep obsession, a lack of sleep also negatively impacts on physical and mental health. I’ve experienced this first-hand. After a night or two of poor sleep, I’m impatient, teary and irrational. After another couple of nights, I’m lethargic and unmotivated. Exercise feels too hard and I can’t remember where I’ve put things.
So, what advice does Bruck offer for overcoming orthosomnia and getting the perfect night’s sleep? “Look after your body clock and go to bed and wake at the same time daily,” she advises. “Gauge how you feel the next day to assess how much sleep you need. If you only need eight hours, then don’t spend nine in bed, because you’re having one hour when you don’t sleep.”
If you’re having trouble sleeping or are waking regularly in the second half of the night, Bruck suggests going to bed a bit later for a few nights, so the body reconsolidates sleep, before returning to your normal bedtime.
“Remember that what you do in the day is important for promoting a good night’s sleep,” she adds. “Get outside for outdoor light, especially in the morning, get a good dose of exercise, and look after your diet.”
As for me, I’m committed to making changes, including taking my watch off at night. What I don’t know can’t hurt me and, for obsessive sleep-monitoring, that’s true in more ways than one.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale July 5.