Advice about insomnia can hurt rather than helpPeople sometimes offer advice when they hear about my insomnia. Their suggestions are not always helpful.

In fact, I used to feel impatient with–and occasionally hurt by—comments that to my ears sounded judgmental or attitudes toward insomnia that I felt were just plain wrong. The comments were well meaning, but that didn’t make them easier to tolerate. Here are a few that put me off and what I think about them now.

There must be a part of you that doesn’t want to sleep.

No doubt this suggestion was meant to be insightful, but I found it exasperating. The idea that there might be a twin self lurking inside me that wanted to stay awake (to do what? force myself to read when my eyes could barely focus? play another round of Internet solitaire?)—just how crazy did that make me sound?

Normal sleepers may assume that people who have insomnia actually want to remain awake because of a belief that sleep can be regulated voluntarily. This belief is fairly common, and some people do seem to have quite a bit of control over their sleep. I once knew a woman who could will herself to take a 10-minute cat nap whenever and wherever she pleased. And what about the lucky ones that drop right off in their seats even before the plane is finished boarding?

Sleep is more complicated for people with insomnia. Yes, there are habits and attitudes we can adopt to avoid sleep problems and we should do this. Yet wanting sleep is not always enough to make it happen–any more than a person with asthma can breathe easily on command.

Something has to be causing your sleep problem. Maybe it’s time you went to a therapist to figure it out.

The suggestion that insomnia was a symptom of a larger psychological problem was dismaying. I doubted very much that an unresolved internal conflict was driving my insomnia–that, despite my years of psychotherapy, a dark secret buried in my unconscious was keeping me awake. Or that I was actually deriving some benefit from insomnia (the sympathy of friends, for example) and this was keeping it alive.

A general practitioner actually made the above suggestion to me not 10 years ago. Obviously he hadn’t read Harvard sleep scientist Gregg D. Jacobs’ book, Say Goodnight to Insomnia, in which Jacobs writes, “There is not one scientific study demonstrating that psychotherapy is effective in treating chronic insomnia.”

Theories about the psychological origins of insomnia were predominant for most of the twentieth century, though, so it’s not so surprising that people—even some doctors—put stock in them still. These days, people who study chronic insomnia say the disorder develops due to many factors: biological, situational, behavioral, and attitudinal. As for the suggestion that a therapist could help me “figure it out,” well, all the world’s sleep scientists haven’t been able definitively to do that yet. So a lone psychologist would surely come up short.

Have you tried melatonin/valerian/yoga/warm milk?

It still surprises me when people offer suggestions like these as though they were novel ideas. I know people are only trying to be helpful and that it’s curmudgeonly of me to complain. But anyone who hasn’t heard of these insomnia remedies has never been on the Internet or read a magazine!

These sleep aids remain popular because sometimes they work: Night owls, for example, can use melatonin successfully to shift their sleep to an earlier hour. Valerian taken nightly has been shown in some studies to improve sleep. The daily practice of yoga reduces arousal and builds resilience to stress, which will have a positive effect on sleep. Milk contains the sleep-friendly amino acid tryptophan. Combined with a complex carbohydrate, it makes a good bedtime snack.

But a person with chronic insomnia has probably been there and done that, not to mention experimenting with a raft of other sleep aids. Sometimes I think we could do with a few more expressions of sympathy and a little less “helpful” advice.

What suggestions have people made about your sleep problem that annoyed you?

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.

4 Comments

  1. Oh my gosh, can I ever relate to this. The suggestions of melatonin, a white noise machine, etc. … my reaction was always, “You really think I’ve been suffering for over a decade and never thought to try this ridiculously obvious idea??” That’s usually followed by me being annoyed that they so underestimate the severity of my insomnia, that they think it could be solved be the equivalent of offering a tylenol to a woman in the end stages of labor.

    The other very frustrating comments I would get were, “Well you must not really be THAT sleepy if you can’t sleep.” The worst part was that this usually came from my husband, who should’ve known better than anyone how bad it was! I think he finally started to grasp how bad it was when I lost all interest in life, stopped smiling or showing any interest in our baby, and then told him that if someone offered me the ability to sleep in exchange for cutting off my own hand I would saw it off in a heartbeat. For me at least, depression didn’t cause insomnia … it was the other way around.

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    1. Hi Kim,

      Your description of how these “helpful” comments feel is spot on! And yes, the comment about sleepiness is one I suspect a lot of insomnia sufferers have heard.

      It’s hard when people who are close to you are unable to grasp what a trial insomnia can be, especially when it’s chronic. I do think, though, that partners of people with insomnia eventually develop a better understanding of the problem.

      Your comment about insomnia leading to depression is one I’ve heard from other people. In fact I think this is one of the biggest discoveries about the relationship between sleep and depression made in recent years. The thinking used to be that depression caused sleep problems. What they know now is that more often than not, insomnia precedes and is known to be a causal factor of depression.

      I hope you’re managing both of these problems better now.

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      1. I am doing better! I am so glad that I stumbled upon your blog & book. After reading up on sleep restriction, I was inspired to try it. I am just reaching the 6 week point and it has made an amazing difference. I never thought I would be at the point where I was sleeping 6-6.5 hours straight each night without any drugs! My goal is 7 hours and I think I will get there.

        To fall asleep in under 5 minutes each night is just the most amazing feeling. I’m still having a bad night here and there, but I have a plan for what I will do when it happens. Just feeling like I have control because I know what I can do to fix the problem is so powerful. I think that the helplessness is what really contributes to depression in the case of chronic insomnia. You feel so awful, so tired that you’re sick, and there’s just no end in sight.

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      2. This is great news, Kim! I’m so very pleased for you.

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