Are All Those Sleep Apps Giving You Orthosomnia? You're Not Alone

June 27, 2019

There’s an app for that” was once music to my ears. Some new, efficient assistant in the ether that would help me take care of another small aspect of my life so that I no longer had to. The tantalizing allure of being freed up just a fraction, reducing my multitasking list to 9 rather than 10 tasks in my never-ending quest for achieving perfection. Boy, did I have it all wrong though. These days, I deliberate long and hard about which apps are worthy of a place in my phone (life) and find myself serial-uninstalling if they aren’t cutting the mustard. I’m a creative human and as I navigate my dreaded Saturn Returns (sympathy please), my priority is swapping out micro-management for just a smidge more magic wherever possible.

We’re all anxious, depressed and miserable at least some of the time and that’s okay! It isn’t attractive to talk about that stuff though, huh? To be seen as keeping up with appearances, our image mustn’t be flawed for even a nanosecond. We are to stop at nothing until status = wellness goddess has been achieved. Living this way can do a lot of harm though, as I discussed recently. But perhaps no aspect is more at risk during the age of wellness extremism than our sleep.

You’ve likely heard of orthorexia, or the obsession with healthy eating. But what about orthosomnia, or the unheathy obsession with getting a good night’s sleep? In the age of sleep apps, it can be an unfortunate repercussion and it’s affecting more people than you might think.

If you’ve ever experienced insomnia, you’ll know full well that it’s a torment not quite like anything else. Unlike most other things in life, when it comes to sleep, the harder you try, the more it slithers out of reach. And the more aware you become of your struggle with drifting off into a sweet slumber, the more frustrated you become. You tell yourself with each passing hour that that’s another cup of coffee you’ll need to down the following day to get through the tasks at hand. The caffeine then messes with your brain and before you can count those ten sheep, you’ve found yourself in a vicious cycle.

The premise of any one of the numerous sleep apps available today is great. We know that quality sleep keeps us in check and that our bodies suffer when we don’t get enough of it. Therefore, the idea that we might take check and pay closer attention is a good thing. However, much like calorie counting or hitting your target number of steps in a day, it’s easy for that inner obsessive demon to rear its ugly head, leaving you tossing and turning and wondering what you’re doing wrong.

I think of sleep much like the sun: it feels great, but you never want to look directly at it, you know? Those alpha and theta brainwaves that send us off into dreamland can only do their thing when we have created an opportunity for them to do so. It may come as no surprise to hear that relaxation really is key.

There are a few factors at play when it comes to sleep. The first is the all-important circadian rhythm, or 24-hour clock that governs the systems within our body that keep things ticking along nicely. At its most basic level, daylight stimulates the production of make-you-feel-awake neurotransmitter seratonin and the onset of darkness triggers melatonin (the one that makes you feel sleepy). Jetlag, shiftwork and staring at your phone well into the night wreak havoc on that body clock of yours, so it goes without saying that focusing on that sleep app right before you’re hoping to drift off is a recipe for disaster.

It’s more than that though; the reminders, the need to log the quantity and quality and the sudden and intense awareness that likely wasn’t there before can induce a “nocebo” effect where we create problems where they simply didn’t exist before. Are you tired because you didn’t quite get enough sleep last night, or could it perhaps be the extra workout, a vitamin deficiency due to a junk food binge or emotional exhaustion from spending too much time in poor company? There’s often a myriad of factors at play.

When it comes to sleep, if you’re feeling tired at roughly the same time each evening and naturally arise at roughly the same time each morning, you really have nothing to be concerned about. Simply trust that your body is doing its thing. A lot of facts and figures get thrown around these days about how many hours to strive for and how deathly the consequences are if you aren’t getting enough shut eye, but in this day and age of a million and one factors threatening our health, perhaps the best thing is to ditch the phone, cut back on the headlines and trust in your body’s ability to maintain homeostasis.

If you’re using a sleep app, I encourage you to ask yourself this (and answer honestly!): does it add to a recipe for relaxation or does it cause you anxiety? If you even hesitate, you know what to do; ditch the phone, take a walk around the block after dinner and get your nose in a book or spend time with your family and trust that you will unwind naturally – no effort required, no counting the minutes necessary.

Are you a fan of sleep apps or do you prefer a more natural approach to rest?


Kat Kennedy is an Arizona-based physiology doctoral student and holistic health advocate writing about science, health, and her experiences as a third culture kid and global nomad. She's @sphynxkennedy everywhere.


always stay inspired!