How to Explain Insomnia to Those Who Don't Understand

by Martin Reed Patient Advocate

If you suffer from insomnia, your friends and loved ones probably offer 'advice' in spades. Do any of these sound familiar?

"Just go to bed earlier. You'll feel better tomorrow.""Try drinking a glass of warm milk. That always helps me.""Exercise more. It'll help you relax."

The truth is, people without insomnia simply can't understand how you feel and what you experience.

Insomnia is more than just not sleeping well

Insomnia means a lot more than just having trouble falling asleep. Many people who experience a stressful life event or short-term illness have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep for a few nights or even a couple of weeks.

Chronic insomnia is a different animal. It occurs when you can't go to sleep (or stay asleep) for a number of weeks or even months at a time. If you have insomnia, you know you won't be able to sleep before your head even hits the pillow. You'll just lay there with your eyes open, begging for sleep. But it just won't come.

And nothing seems to help. Sleepytime tea, melatonin or a warm bath may sound like cure-alls - but for a true insomniac, these are nothing more than band-aids that offer little help getting to sleep.

So rather than just laying there night after night staring at the ceiling, you get out of bed and try to find something to occupy yourself without waking the rest of the family. It's exhausting and frustrating and isolating.

What does insomnia feel like?

Once morning comes, things are no better. Insomnia doesn't just make you a little tired the next day. An extra cup of coffee won't make you feel better.

Insomnia can severely impact your ability to function on a daily basis, and make you feel like you're living in a bubble. A character in the movie "Fight Club" describes insomnia quite well:

"When you have insomnia, you're never really asleep ... and you're never really awake. With insomnia, nothing's real. Everything's far away. Everything's a copy of a copy of a copy."

You may be forgetful, clumsy and unfocused. You may eat more. People who are sleep deprived often have more of the hormone ghrelin which induces hunger.

You may react more strongly to sad or disturbing images or news. And you may be more likely to catch a cold.

Practically, these symptoms make it dangerous to drive, difficult to perform at work and can cause strife in your interpersonal relationships.

If you have insomnia, you probably feel isolated and alone. It's important to make people understand that the condition is much more than being a little sleepy during the day.

Chronic insomnia impacts your health, your ability to think clearly and your mental health. It's not something to be ignored or taken lightly.

Martin Reed
Meet Our Writer
Martin Reed

Martin is the creator of Insomnia Coach, an eight-week course that combines online sleep education with individual sleep coaching. His course helps clients improve their sleep so they can enjoy a better life with more energy and start each day feeling happy, healthy, rested, and refreshed. Martin also runs a free sleep training course that has helped over 5,000 insomniacs. He holds a master’s degree in health and wellness education and studied clinical sleep health at the University of Delaware.