Does Insomnia Look as Bad as We Think?

I recently attended a talk where the speaker, a photographer, posed a question to the audience. “If you took a series of photos of yourself going about your daily life,” she asked, “are there images you’d feel uncomfortable sharing with other people?”

The first image that came to mind was my face as it must look the minute I crawl out of bed after a slew of insomniac nights. That face isn’t pretty. But would signs of sleep deprivation show up in a photograph?

Fatigue and sleep deprivation show up in the eyes, skin, and mouthI recently attended a talk where the speaker, a photographer, posed a question to the audience. “If you took a series of photos of yourself going about your daily life,” she asked, “are there images you’d feel uncomfortable sharing with other people?”

The first image that came to mind was my face as it must look the minute I crawl out of bed after a slew of insomniac nights, when I’m feeling sleep deprived. (Bouts of insomnia are rare now, but they can still occur if I’m stressed out for several days.) The face I imagine isn’t pretty: furrowed brow; pained eyes; skin that’s inelastic, exposing crow’s feet and other wrinkles that show my age; mouth turned down.

I’m not the only insomniac to imagine the worst. Amy, a stay-at-home mom I interviewed for my book, is convinced after nights of insomnia that she looks like a mess. “I feel like I’ve got black circles under my eyes,” she says. “I feel like my whole aura is going to be sort of repulsive in the world. I don’t even want to go out the door I feel so icky.”

But would the icky way we feel after insomniac nights show up in a photograph, or are we just imagining we look so bad?

The Facts of the Matter

A study from Sweden and The Netherlands confirms that telltale signs of insufficient sleep can be read in the face. When people are severely sleep deprived (in this case, subjects underwent a short night’s sleep followed by a completely sleepless night), it shows up in their eyes, skin, and mouth, and as sadness.

The subjects in this study were probably way more sleep deprived than most people with insomnia. In fact, sleep deprivation may not be the real problem for some insomniacs at all.

Still, alongside other findings, this study adds to the literature suggesting that inadequate sleep not only jeopardizes our health and day-to-day functioning. It can also make us less attractive. (And who thinks this concern is superficial? Not me!)

Facial Cues of Sleep Deprivation

  • Tired eyes are the most revealing sign of fatigue. Drooping eyelids and eyes that are red or swollen are a tip-off that you’re short on sleep.
  • Skin cues are telling, too. All the usual suspects—pale skin, wrinkles, and dark circles under the eyes—are validated in this study as signs of sleep deprivation.
  • Finally, drooping corners of the mouth and overall sadness are marks of fatigue and insufficient sleep.

The take-away? You’ve known it all along. Everything your mother ever told you about your need for beauty sleep is absolutely true.

Does your face look different when you’re short on sleep? How?

Loving and Hating Sleep

Many famous writers have professed a low regard for sleep.

But Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s loyal companion, held sleep in high esteem.

Sleep is unimportant to some writers, but not to Sancho PanzaA sister-in-law once asked me why I put so much stock in sleeping.

“Sleep’s a waste of time,” she said. “It’s like death. You just lie there completely oblivious to what’s going on. And the more you sleep, the more time passes, and the closer you are to dying. Then it’s all over. Kaput!

“I think one reason people can’t sleep is because they really don’t want to,” she said, locking her eyes on mine in case I might think I was not among the people she was talking about.

A Writerly Attitude

Many writers have professed a low regard for sleep.

Vladimir Nabokov, who admitted to being “a poor go-to-sleeper,” said, “No matter how great my weariness, the wrench of parting with consciousness is unspeakably repulsive to me. I loathe Somnus, that black-masked headsman binding me to the block.”

Emil Cioran considered his insomnia to be “the greatest experience” of his life. “When I was about 20 I stopped sleeping and I consider that the grandest tragedy that could occur … All that I have written much later has been worked out during those nights.”

Dorothy Parker, too, spent her nights writing poems and stories and sneered at friends who slept, “…stretched sodden through these, the fairest hours of the day, when man should be at his most productive.”

“Only dolts and drudges sleep,” says Angelo Santasilia, a character in an Isak Dinesan story. “Fishermen, peasants and artisans must have their hours of snoring at any cost … Those living dead will never know what happened, or what was said, while they themselves lay huddled and gaping.”

Don Quixote’s Companion Weighs In

But some fictional characters have sung sleep’s praises. Sleep, says Sancho Panza, is “the cloak that covers all man’s thoughts, the food that cures all hunger, the water that quenches all thirst, the fire that warms the cold, the cold that cools the heat; the common coin, in short, that can purchase all things, the balancing weight that levels the shepherd with the king and the simple with the wise.”

Joyce Carol Oates has written about the “secret pride of the insomniac who … knows himself set apart from others,” but when it comes to feelings about sleep, I identify with the dolts and the drudges. Sancho got it right.