Coping With Insomnia and Tracking Your Sleep: Does it Work?
Last updated: November 2023
If you have sleeping difficulty, then it probably goes without saying that you have tried apps and trackers to understand your sleep better. As technology develops, these gadgets and apps are increasingly popular. They promise to help you understand your sleep, implying that the information they provide can help you improve your sleep.
However, there are several issues at play here that underpin my general recommendation to my clients: Don't use these devices to track sleep.
What trackers actually track
Most sleep trackers use actigraphy, which tracks movement and noise through sensors within the device. While actigraphy estimates sleep patterns, it is nowhere near as accurate as polysomnography. Polysomnography examines brain waves, oxygen, heart rate, and eye and leg movements.1
Apps tend to be inaccurate estimators of sleep duration, nighttime wakings, and light sleep.2
This last one is especially relevant to those with insomnia. When you are "trying to sleep" and lying very still... is it measuring whether you are awake or asleep?
Tracking deep sleep might be better done subjectively
People also seem to think they need 100 percent deep sleep to feel refreshed. A major limitation of consumer wearables is that they are not good at (or ignore) estimating how much time a person spends in REM, light, and deep sleep. These can be key measures of a person's sleep patterns and quality.2
If you are a person who is very interested in how much deep sleep you are getting, an app or wearable is less accurate than perhaps your subjective measure of your sleep quality! How do you feel in the morning?
So, you may have an app or a wearable because you want to understand your sleep – but they are not accurate in how people seem to be most interested in total sleep duration and their "sleep stages."
Tracking is stepping closer but could still miss the mark
Sleep-tracking technology is evolving, and sensors are becoming more comprehensive. Some are integrating oxygen saturation and heart rate data, bringing them closer to providing a more comprehensive view of people's sleep. Producers of wearables are also teaming up with researchers and universities to help improve the validity of their measurements.2,3
These are steps in the right direction for accuracy, but even the most accurate device isn't necessarily a cure-all for people's sleep. On top of this, even if the data was accurate, would a person know what to do with that data?
The obsession with sleep tracking
Looking around quickly on social media, I can see people who think they need 100 percent deep sleep and are stressed about this. First, the data they are worrying about is probably not accurate anyway. Second, the assumption is incorrect. And third: then what?
People hold great stock in numbers and get stressed if their "scores" don't meet the right "standard." The sleep anxiety, driven by inaccurate data, causes a lot of unnecessary emotional suffering and also, ironically, makes sleep worse. I see this every day in my work, too.4
Apps can give an estimate or an overview. Still, I believe tracking sleep in this way creates more problems – through sleep anxiety – than it could solve by even becoming more accurate. Solutions to this element could include coaching or therapy with a qualified sleep therapist.
Have you ever found it better to give up your sleep tracker for a while?
Do you experience painsomnia?