10 Things You Should Never Say to Someone with Insomnia, According to an Insomniac

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If you’ve ever been awake for days on end or found yourself unable to get just three hours of sleep, you might have insomnia. If not, the other insomniacs and I really appreciate that you’re here to support us.

While one in three people will experience at least a mild case of the can’t-sleeps once in their lifetime, for some of us, insomnia is a lifelong struggle that’s trudged through with a combination of meds and lifestyle changes. We cut back on caffeine and alcohol, totally eliminate tobacco, exercise earlier in the day, avoid that late-night snack and create—and try to stick to—a bedtime routine that doesn’t involve screens. It is exhausting, but strangely not enough to put us to sleep. 

Not sleeping sucks. And we know your texts, calls and melatonin care packages are full of good intentions, but if it’s not your reality, insomnia can be difficult to fully understand, so please, we beg of you, stay away from these ten things people tend to say—and use our three favorite phrases of encouragement instead. Read on.

1. “You have to try calming your mind at bedtime.”

You might not realize this, but insomnia actually causes anxiety for a lot of us. That wound-up, tight-chested feeling makes relaxing into a deep sleep totally impossible. This spiral starts us thinking that we’re going to spend yet another night staring at the ceiling, and it only makes that anxiety worse. Insomnia is something we feel constantly—not only at bedtime—so the telltale wide-awake energy we have at 9 p.m. makes “calm” feel way off in the distance.

2. “Have you ever tried melatonin?”

Chances are strong that your sleepy friend has given melatonin a go. It’s widely available over the counter and on Amazon, and it’s probably already in her medicine cabinet thanks to her well-meaning mom. Yes, we’ve tried melatonin, and for a lot of us, it stopped working a while ago, as it tends to do if you take it regularly for about three months.

3. “You look so tired!”

Exactly the look I was going for after spending 40 minutes trying to put some color on my face and life in my eyes.

4. “Make up for it over the weekend!”

Do we want to luxuriate in the sweet release of sleep when it actually does come on the weekend? Absolutely. But surprisingly, this is the exact opposite of what insomniacs are supposed to do. Part of treating insomnia is sticking to a sleep schedule with the same sleep and wake times each day. Letting that run off the rails by snoozing till 1 p.m. on a Saturday is the perfect way to ensure zero sleep on Sunday, and on and on the vicious cycle goes.

5. “Maybe stop drinking coffee?”

Insomniacs know their triggers, and that includes caffeine. We already know it’s going to make it harder to fall asleep at night if we drink coffee or anything with caffeine past a certain time. That point in the day is different for everyone, but try to refrain from coming for your insomniac friend’s matcha latte first thing in the morning—it’s the only thing keeping her eyes open.

6. “You should try to exercise.”

It’s true that breaking a sweat earlier in the day can help you fall asleep later on that night. But when was the last time you got zero sleep and then decided to start your day with a brisk 30-minute run at 6:30 a.m.? We thought so.

7. “Have you tried meditation?”

Meditation can help with insomnia by calming the mind and putting an overtired person into the right mindset to hit the hay, for sure. But it takes a certain level of self-control and discipline to be able to even begin to meditate when you’re so stressed and physically ill from not sleeping (think nausea, headaches, shaky hands, unfocused eyes, weak limbs) that meditation is no longer on the table.

8. “What causes your insomnia?”

Oh dear, if only we knew. The truth is that there’s no one thing that causes insomnia. There are also different types that vary in severity and cause too. One person might have acute insomnia, meaning they experience it in short bouts that are few and far between and brought on by things we all feel, like stress, anxiety or depression. But insomnia can also be chronic, meaning it’s ongoing for at least a month—often longer—and seriously disrupts your life and health. Or you could be super lucky (I kid) and have idiopathic insomnia (*raises hand*), which literally means the cause is unknown.

9. “Have you ever tried Ambien?”

It’s the sleeping drug everyone knows about. But if someone’s insomnia is bad enough, they’ve likely had this conversation with their doctor already and determined that it wasn’t right for them, or maybe they gave it a whirl and decided to stop. Maybe they were afraid of developing an addiction—which can certainly happen—or suddenly started sleepwalking and woke up four hours later “watching” TV with the contents of the fridge splayed out around them on the living room floor. Just me?

10. “Are you sure you didn’t get any sleep At All?”

Yup, we’re sure. We watched the clock change from 1:42 a.m. to 3:16 a.m. to 5:59 a.m. and then slammed our hand down on our alarm at the exact moment it went off, so trust us, we didn’t catch any winks.

We know that everything you have to say and suggest is coming from a good place because you care about us and understand that not sleeping is seriously bad for our health. And not everything you’re thinking of is flat-out wrong or stressful for us to hear. Sometimes your words help because you’re not trying to fix us, you’re just being there for us (thanks, Mom!).

Three Things You Should Say

1. “What can I do to help?”

The answer might turn out to be nothing, but offering to help us sleep is so kind and generous, and we really appreciate it. You might be surprised to learn that you can help. Maybe you’re the partner who takes Jenky, the rescue pit bull you adopted together, for her last walk of the night so your insomniac has more time to try to wind down. We love to see the support!

2. “I didn’t even know you had insomnia!”

This could be a flat-out lie, and we don’t even care if it is, but letting us know that we don’t look like an extra from the set of The Walking Dead, and more important, that our lack of sleep isn’t affecting our job performance or relationships is really nice to hear. Not sleeping is rough, but not sleeping and feeling like we’re failing at keeping up with our demanding life puts us firmly on that anxiety carousel.

3. “I’m coming over with takeout.”

One of the worst things about insomnia is being too tired to go out and see your friends. Feeling physically unable to shower, do our hair, put on makeup and get ourselves to a restaurant for girls’ night is honestly depressing. Alleviating that very lonesome feeling by being the proactive friend who A) doesn’t make us feel bad about being too tired to go out, B) eliminates the pressure of having to say yes and C) shows how much she cares by bringing food means the absolute world. Thanks, girl.

7 Must-Haves for a Good Night’s Sleep, According to Former Insomniacs

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From 2019-2020 Ariel Scotti held the role of Editor at PureWow covering trends, wellness and more.