It’s cruel to blame people for health problems they have little if anything to do with creating. Yet the urge to do so is powerful when the true causes of an affliction remain unknown. In the 20th century many illnesses were seen as psychological or behavioral problems.
Cancer? A disease of people who repressed their emotions. All that pent-up emotion and hostility just had to find expression some way, and it did so by causing cells to run amok.
AIDS? Brought on by sexual promiscuity.
Narcolepsy? Before the recent discovery of orexins–neurotransmitters that help keep us awake and which are lacking in narcoleptics, making them prone to daytime sleep attacks—narcolepsy was explained as a psychological problem of people who lacked motivation.
Insomnia? It, too, was self-created. “You! Are really the major cause of your own insomnia,” declared self-help author Valerie Moolman in 1968, at a time when sleeplessness was blamed on everything from internalized emotion and a desire for attention to bad habits like worrying and staying out late.
We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby . . . or Have We?
We’re in the 21st century now–century of the brain. Biology and neuroscience are teaching us that the causes of many chronic disorders and serious diseases are complex.
But wait. Near the end of journalist David K. Randall’s new book, Dreamland, Randall states this: “And yet insomnia is a unique and difficult condition to treat because it is self-inflicted.” Self-inflicted? Aren’t we beyond holding people responsible for a sleep disorder most sleep researchers say is based in part upon vulnerabilities predisposed at birth?
I don’t think we’ve come that far yet. “I have been made to feel like I must be doing something wrong,” wrote Carol, an insomnia sufferer who reviewed my book, The Savvy Insomniac, just last month, “drinking too much coffee (1 cup in the morning) or not really trying to get to sleep.”
There are some things we can do that will probably interfere with sleep:
- Drinking coffee later in the afternoon or in the evening
- Drinking alcohol right before bed
- Sleeping late in the morning or taking long naps.
Avoiding these behaviors will likely improve sleep. But many of us already know these things and take them to heart. We hew pretty close to the straight and narrow . . . and still we have trouble sleeping.
Do We Create Insomnia in Our Heads?
Believing we can’t sleep will make sleep more difficult. Fearing insomnia will, too. Yet we don’t develop such beliefs and fears of our own volition. We learn them unconsciously. (See my blog on fear of insomnia.) And once in place, they’re hard to dislodge. (But not impossible. See my blog on laying fear of sleeplessness to rest.)
Even researchers who theorize that chronic insomnia develops in people who think too much about sleep or try too hard to do it are retreating from this claim as more evidence comes in suggesting the underlying cause of insomnia to be excessive arousal of the central nervous system.
Changing habits and mindsets can go a long way toward helping insomniacs sleep. But it’s time we stopped pointing fingers at the sleepless and started looking at insomnia as the multifactorial sleep disorder it truly is.