Have you fallen victim to the ‘sleep perception gap’? The worrying new trend that’s causing insomnia

A good night’s sleep has become the ultimate wellbeing goal. But our obsession has also given rise to the ‘sleep perception gap’ – a worrying new trend where many of us overestimate how long we’ve been tossing and turning, and therefore get sucked into scientifically unsound habits to improve our sleep.

“In scientific work, when we talk about sleep perception or sleep misperception, it’s often in relation to insomnia,” says Dr Kat Lederle, a sleep therapist and chronobiologist at Somnia. “If you have a chronic sleep problem you actually overestimate the time you are lying awake and your perception is that you’ve been awake all night.” 

This largely comes down to a lack of knowledge about the neurological changes that occur when we sleep. “The brain doesn’t automatically switch off,” says Dr Lederle. “When we fall asleep, one area of the brain may shut down, followed by others. But what can also happen is that one half of the brain shuts down and the other half stays slightly alert – something that is often the root cause of a poor night’s sleep in a hotel room.” This comes down to primitive survival instincts – when you sleep, you are in your most vulnerable state so your brain stays partially alert, whether faced with an unfamiliar environment or a saber tooth tiger. “While your quality of sleep isn’t as good as if you entered a deep REM sleep, it can be misinterpreted as not sleeping at all,” she adds. 

Cue: worrying if something is wrong and latching on to any healthy sleep theory touted on social media, which only widens the gap between trusted solutions and false information. And so the spiral is complete: “You go to bed in an alarmed state and as a result, your sleep becomes impaired because you worry that whatever solution you found that day won’t work,” says Dr Lederle.

But is it any wonder that we’re so pre-occupied with getting the perfect night’s kip, given the current sleep landscape? ‘Orthosomnia’, or a preoccupation with so-called healthy sleeping, is on the rise; terms like ‘sleep hygiene’ are bandied around, chastising those who have a TV or smart phone in the bedroom, while over the past 10 years, the number of prescriptions written for melatonin (the sleep-regulating hormone) has increased tenfold among the under-55s.

Not to mention, we’re a nation of poor sleepers, according to research by Fitbit, which has analysed 22 billion hours of global sleep data and is launching a Sleep Profile feature that measures your sleep across 10 key metrics each month, including sleep duration and REM sleep.

The tech giant’s survey of over 2,000 subjects revealed that they felt tired for an average of four hours a day with a further one in 10 claiming that they are tired all day long. What’s more, 70% of those surveyed believed popular sleep myths around how much shut-eye constitutes a good night’s sleep (more on that below) and less than a third thought that healthy lifestyle choices can enhance their sleep quality (only 19% felt mindfulness and meditation techniques were beneficial). 

So what can be done? On the one hand, caring more about sleep is a positive move, says Dr Lederle, especially now that disrupted sleep is thought to be connected to everything from obesity to cancer. “It’s fantastic that people are literally waking up to the importance of sleep as the foundation for their health and wellbeing,” she explains. “You can have the best diet and run marathons, but it’s not sustainable if you don’t get enough sleep because the body can’t recover properly without a rest and activity cycle.”