Does Insomnia Carry a Social Stigma?

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My aunt and uncle from LA recently visited me here in Ann Arbor. I spent a fair amount of time with them when I lived on the West Coast, and over the years we’ve had lots of intimate conversations. They’d read my book, The Savvy Insomniac, and the first thing they said about it was this:

“We never knew you had such a problem with insomnia.” Implied was a question: Why didn’t you ever mention it to us?

I was actually surprised to find out I hadn’t spoken about my sleep problem with these family members. I answered as truthfully as I could:

“There’s a stigma attached to insomnia,” I said, or something to that effect. “I didn’t use to say much about my trouble sleeping. I didn’t want people making assumptions about me, like I had big psychological problems or I was making a mountain out of a molehill, or something like that.”

A Pervasive Social Stigma

Part of what motivated me to study insomnia was the social stigma I felt was attached to it. I wanted to understand where it came from and why it’s so enduring.

Other insomnia sufferers also perceive this stigma. A number I’ve spoken with feel that family and friends don’t understand what it’s like to struggle with persistent insomnia, and that they make negative judgments about people who have it (or they would judge us poorly if they knew). So we end up keeping the complaint to ourselves . . . and feeling like we’ve got to tough it out on our own rather than reaching out for help.

Still other insomnia sufferers say they have no reservations about discussing their sleep problem, adding that the normal reaction they get is sympathy. I overheard a sleep therapist say there was no stigma attached to insomnia, and I wondered if the stigma was finally dying out.

But recent studies exploring the experience of insomnia suggest the stigma persists. Of 24 insomnia patients interviewed at the University of North Texas, “38 percent of the sample directly admitted to feeling stigmatized about their problem sleeping,” and “more discussed it indirectly in terms of isolation and feeling different.”

Do You Feel This Way?

These testimonials are taken from the study above and from similar studies conducted in Scotland and Pittsburgh. See if they reflect a part of your experience with insomnia:

  • “I felt like it was . . . a disgrace? Like why am I weak and why can I not get over this? It’s a thing you feel a little bit guilty about. You know, I am tough and strong and I can do this myself. That was one reason I waited [to look for help].”
  • “I feel embarrassed even to discuss about my sleeplessness, why I’m so tired, why I’m dull, why I’m not performing maybe to my friends’ expectations . . . to the world, it is a problem you can sort out.”
  • “When I tell my family I have it, they all laugh. They say I need to see a psychiatrist. I thought I was nuts. . . . [Even now] I can’t really talk about it with anyone except my doctor.”
  • “Other people think you’re a freak” . . . “a liar” . . . “a hypochondriac.”
  • “People might see that some days I do okay but not most days. . . . I think they wonder if I’m faking when I talk about how hard things are.”

Beyond Embarrassment and Isolation

This sense of being misunderstood, and the shame and isolation that can take root in those of us who suffer insomnia, is apparently fairly common. These feelings and attitudes get serious treatment in The Savvy Insomniac. The overall aim is to encourage people to move beyond them and see persistent insomnia as a serious health problem deserving of attention.

For now, in case you’re resigned to carrying on as a poor sleeper, keep these things in mind: chronic insomnia compromises day-to-day functioning and long-term health. Avoid mentioning it to friends and family if you must–but do continue to look out for help.

Are you guarded about discussing your sleep problem with others? If so, why?