Insomnia Advice Can Miss the Mark

People 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.

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?