mums-the-wordIs there a stigma attached to insomnia? Is insomnia regarded in the same way as mental disorders were regarded in the past–and are seen by some yet today–as something to keep quiet about for fear of others making negative assumptions about your habits and soundness of mind?

I revisited this issue over the weekend as I was responding to questions from Dr. Laura L. Mays Hoopes, a biologist and writer who has read my book and is interviewing me for her blog.

“When people hear you have insomnia, what is their response?” Hoopes asked. “How do you cope with it?”

It used to be that I didn’t talk about my insomnia to people unless I knew them well. Many acquaintances didn’t quite know what to make of the problem. Based on comments they offered in response, I could see they were making assumptions about me—that I had unresolved personal issues, was emotionally unstable, or drank too much coffee—that I didn’t care to have them make. So I was in the closet about my insomnia for many, many years.

Differing Perspectives

As I was interviewing insomnia sufferers for my book, I found that some perceived a stigma attached to insomnia and, like me, simply refrained from talking about it. One woman hadn’t even shared her trouble sleeping with her husband!

Others did not think insomnia was something they needed to hide.

“I’ve never gotten a negative response,” said Jim, when I asked if he avoided discussing his sleep problem with others. “I think everybody can identify with the anxiety and pressures that cause sleep problems. It’s not as if somebody said to me, ‘Jim, I smell alcohol on your breath and it’s 10 in the morning. What’s going on?’ That would be so humiliating and embarrassing. Somehow not getting enough sleep doesn’t fall into that category. I’ve never experienced someone suggesting anything negative. If anything, people identify with the problem.”

An Expert Opinion

I attended a seminar on CBT for insomnia two years ago, and the expert presenter’s claim was that most people have no qualms about talking about insomnia or concerns about what it might imply about their mental health.

“Insomnia,” she said, “isn’t seen as a mental problem. It doesn’t carry the same stigma.”

I’d like to believe cultural attitudes about insomnia have changed, and that people are now as comfortable talking about it as they are comfortable talking about bad backs and lousy digestion. But I’m not so sure we’ve come that far.

My aunt recently suggested to her daughter-in-law, who’d complained about sleep problems for many years, that she might find help by reading my book.

“Oh no,” was the daughter-in-law’s quick response. “I don’t have insomnia.”

What do you think? Does insomnia carry a stigma or not? Are you reluctant to discuss it? Why or why not?

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

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