Does Insomnia Carry a Social Stigma?

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.” Implicit was a question: Why didn’t you ever mention it to us?

hiding-insomniaMy 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?

Is Insomnia a Heritable Trait?

My friend Lisa passed word of my book, The Savvy Insomniac, on to a friend, whose first question, Lisa reported, was this: Did I think insomnia was genetic?

Environmental stressors can trigger insomnia: everything from childhood abuse and loss of a parent to financial worries and divorce. Behaviors and attitudes can give rise to persistent sleep problems as well. Less well understood are the biological underpinnings of insomnia, yet research suggests they exist.

adolescent-twinsMy friend Lisa passed word of my book, The Savvy Insomniac, on to a friend, whose first question, Lisa reported, was this: Did I think insomnia was genetic?

Environmental stressors can trigger insomnia: everything from childhood abuse and loss of a parent to financial worries and divorce. Behaviors and attitudes can give rise to persistent sleep problems as well. Less well understood are the biological underpinnings of insomnia, yet research suggests they exist.

Take the growing body of family and twin studies looking at the contribution of genetic factors to chronic insomnia. All suggest that vulnerability to insomnia is a partially inherited trait. Genetic factors account for between 37 and 57 percent of the variance in susceptibility to stress-related sleep problems and insomnia, according to studies published in 2008 and 2006.

Which Aspects of Sleep Are Inherited?

The timing of sleep is apparently quite dependent on our genetic make-up. Two genes in particular—called CLOCK and PER3, expressed in different forms in different people—prompt some of us to nod off soon after dinner and others to stay up till 1 or 2 a.m.

A new twin study conducted on adolescents in Australia (25 pairs of identical twins and 41 pairs of fraternal twins) suggests the genetic contribution to other aspects of sleep is strong as well, at least in adolescents. Researchers found that genetic factors accounted for a high percent of variance in these traits:

  • Time it took to fall asleep, 83 percent
  • Total sleep time, 65 percent
  • Wakefulness after falling asleep, 52 percent.

“There is a strong genetic influence on the sleep-wake patterns of 12-year-old adolescents,” the researchers conclude.

Managing Insomnia

An array of genetic factors may affect our sleep and increase our susceptibility to insomnia. But there are ways of working around the liabilities. I’ll recap three important ones you’ve probably heard of before:

  1. Maintain a regular sleep-wake schedule. Even if your bedtime fluctuates, get up at the same time every morning.
  2. Avoid naps.
  3. Get regular exercise.

Insomnia sufferers may never become gold medal sleepers. But despite our limitations, there’s a lot we can do to improve.

What do you think causes your insomnia: genetic factors, life experience, lifestyle choices, or some combination?

An Insomniac Salutes Her Muse

“Why write about insomnia?” is a question I’m often asked when I tell people about my book. “Do you have it yourself?”

“Since childhood,” I reply. But I might not have written a book about insomnia if I hadn’t read Andrew Solomon’s book, The Noonday Demon.

books“Why write about insomnia?” is a question I’m often asked when I tell people about my book. “Do you have it yourself?”

“Since childhood,” I reply. If the advice to “write about what you know” is apt, insomnia and I are a literary match made in heaven.

But I would never have written about insomnia if I hadn’t hit on a way to do it that was different from the way the topic is usually addressed. For this, I thank Andrew Solomon (who coincidentally was interviewed in The New York Times Book Review this week), whose book about depression—The Noonday Demon—changed my life. Not because I suffer from depression myself and found advice for my own situation. Rather, Solomon’s book was illuminating because it approached its subject in a way that was different—more honest, I felt—from most other books on depression. I thought I could write about insomnia in a similar way.

Real People, Real Lives

One of Solomon’s aims was to get people to recognize the huge impact depression can have on the afflicted, and to show people with depression managing their lives. To do this, he shares his own story and the stories of others with depression. This is, I think, a more meaningful way of creating empathy than the dry case studies often cited in self-help books.

Likewise, The Savvy Insomniac aims to show that persistent insomnia can be far more debilitating than it’s often assumed to be. It does this in part by sharing the words of real people talking about real lives.

An Intelligent Audience

Solomon’s treatment of depression is expansive. He assumes an intelligent audience that does not want him to stint on scientific information about the disorder or theories about its origins. And he writes in a way that I, a general reader, can comprehend.

Likewise, The Savvy Insomniac delves more deeply into the science of sleep and insomnia than most popular books on the subject. And it does so with a general readership in mind.

Solomon does not limit himself to addressing the medical aspects of depression. He looks at the cultural aspects as well: the assumptions and myths we have about depression, their historical origins, and the impact of these beliefs upon the afflicted.

Likewise, The Savvy Insomniac explores current and past attitudes toward insomnia with the aim of correcting misconceptions that keep us from understanding it as the serious problem that it is.

Going through Treatments

Nor does Solomon merely describe different therapies for depression. He undergoes the treatments himself and writes about his experiences, fleshing out our understanding without trying to sell us on the benefits of one treatment over another.

Likewise, The Savvy Insomniac reports on the experiences of insomniacs going through various insomnia treatments so readers can gain a fuller sense of what the treatments are like.

How well it all works in The Savvy Insomniac will be up to readers to decide. But my credo has always been this: “Aim high!”

In the News

Chelsea Update, September 6, 2013
LOCAL AUTHOR EXPLORES INSOMNIA IN NEW BOOK
Scio Township resident Lois Maharg has spent most of her life battling insomnia. She has tried hypnotic CDs, relaxation exercises, melatonin, sleeping pills, self-help books and more with no long-term success. So she decided to go out in search of answers and write a book.

Chelsea Update, September 6, 2013

LOCAL AUTHOR EXPLORES INSOMNIA IN NEW BOOK

Lois Maharg with book, The Savvy Insomniac(Chelsea Update would like to thank Lisa Carolin for this book review and photo.)

Scio Township resident Lois Maharg has spent most of her life battling insomnia. She has tried hypnotic CDs, relaxation exercises, melatonin, sleeping pills, self-help books and more with no long-term success.

Doctors and sleep experts couldn’t help Maharg, so the former teacher and journalist took matters into her own hands. For eight years, she talked to dozens of insomnia sufferers, interviewed numerous sleep specialists and attended many conferences on sleep and sleep disorders. All her research has come to fruition with her newly published book called “The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep.”

“My overall aim was to look at insomnia not in the narrow sense it’s usually looked at in self-help books, but rather to explore it broadly: through personal experience, cultural attitudes, science, and treatments available now in the pipeline,” said Maharg, who adds that 30 million Americans have persistent insomnia.

“People who want to improve their sleep need to understand the body systems controlling sleep and waking,” said Maharg. “Only then can they get these systems to work in their favor.”

Maharg says that her research taught her that while normal sleepers’ brains are mostly quiet at night, key areas in insomniacs’ brains continue metabolizing glucose even as the rest of the brain sleeps.

“We’re not just ‘imagining’ that we’re awake; parts of the brain really are awake,” she said.

Maharg says that she decided to write the book as a way of doing her own investigation into insomnia.

“If there was a way to better sleep, I was going to find it and write a book about what I found,” she said. “I guess it boiled down to this: Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Maharg’s book is available here on her website, and will be available at the end of September in both print and e-book from online booksellers. You can learn more about the book and insomnia by visiting Maharg’s blog.

Access Chelsea Update story here: Chelsea Update

Press Release 9-26-13

FOR RELEASE SEPTEMBER 26, 2013
CONTACT: Lois Maharg, 734-424-1088, loismaharg@thesavvyinsomniac.com
Tired of Keeping Vigil at Night? New Book Offers Insight into Insomnia and Tools to Improve Sleep
ANN ARBOR, MI—September 26, 2013—A new book draws on personal experience and science to shed light on chronic insomnia and help poor sleepers get a good night’s rest.

FOR RELEASE SEPTEMBER 26, 2013

CONTACT: Lois Maharg, 734-424-1088, loismaharg@thesavvyinsomniac.com

Tired of Keeping Vigil at Night? New Book Offers Insight
into Insomnia and Tools for Better Sleep

ANN ARBOR, MI—September 26, 2013—A new book draws on personal experience and science to shed light on chronic insomnia and help poor sleepers get a good night’s rest.

In The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep ($12.95, Fine Fettle Books, September 2013), journalist Lois Maharg tours the world of the sleepless—visiting sleep clinics, researchers, therapists, conferences, and fellow insomniacs—in a quest for better sleep and daytime stamina. This book documents her journey and offers an array of strategies aimed at helping insomnia sufferers improve their sleep.

Thirty million Americans struggle with persistent insomnia, compromising their quality of life and long-term health. In The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep, Maharg presents a state-of-the-art perspective on the causes and consequences of this frustrating and complex disorder, interweaving information about

  • The body systems that control sleep and waking
  • Cutting-edge research from leading sleep scientists
  • The history of insomnia and cultural attitudes toward it
  • The benefits—and risks—of sleeping pills
  • Insomnia treatments and new therapies in the pipeline.

“Many insomniacs have tried the sleep tips they see in magazines and on the web,” Maharg says. “They’re looking for solutions but haven’t found anything that works. Clearly they need more than quick answers. They also want to understand why, although they’re exhausted at night, they can’t turn off their brains. My book gives readers the knowledge base and the means to improve their nights and days.”

Lois Maharg has worked as a beat reporter and features writer in Pennsylvania and Michigan, writing on a variety of topics including health, exercise, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia gave rise to this book. Her blog, The Savvy Insomniac, is dedicated to sharing new information about insomnia and sleep.

The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep ($12.95, 320 pages, 5 ½ X 8 ½, paperback, ISBN 978-0-9894837-1-1) is available at http://www.thesavvyinsomniac.com and from online booksellers offering e-book versions as well ($3.99, ISBN 978-0-9894837-0-4).

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CONTACT: Lois Maharg, 734-424-1088, loismaharg@thesavvyinsomniac.com

Download Press Release: PR 9-26-13