Now, imagine this happening at least three times a week for 3 months or more. That's chronic insomnia. For the 10% to 30% of adults who live with this condition, it affects many areas of life. Long-lasting sleep deprivation may lead to health issues ranging from forgetfulness to depression to a higher risk of heart disease.
“The hard thing is you're basically running on empty all the time,” says Steven Binko, 33, a Milwaukee-based entertainer who was diagnosed with chronic insomnia 15 years ago. “People attribute insomnia with being on a caffeine buzz. It's not like that. It's really a restlessness.”
People who live with chronic insomnia say others may not understand how their condition differs from short-term sleeplessness. They say they often get well-meaning but short-sighted suggestions on how to “solve” their sleep problems.
“It’s why I don't talk about it too much, because I get all sorts of advice every time I do," says LaShawn Wiltz, 45, a content creator who lives in Decatur, GA. "I'm 45. I think I've heard everything.”
Wiltz has been living with chronic sleep maintenance insomnia since high school (that means she has trouble staying asleep). Yet people still regularly suggest things like meditation or a relaxing bedtime routine.
“I'm the queen of routines! I've had a nighttime routine forever,” she says.
Medication suggestions aren't helpful, either, she says. Chances are, a person with long-term insomnia has already tried whatever you're recommending, whether it's a sleeping pill or herbal remedy.
Binko, whose bouts with insomnia and chronic fatigue syndrome can leave him without rest for days, has been down the same road.
Even more upsetting is when people dismiss your insomnia as being “all in your head,” says Kirsten Alana, 40, a freelance photographer from Los Angeles.
“Insomnia is a real medical issue, just like migraines or dry skin, eczema, etc. It deserves the respect that other conditions have,” says Alana, whose occasional sleep issues turned into full-blown insomnia during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Insomnia is a physical manifestation of a problem that your body is having."
Research has shown time and again how essential sleep is to your health. “It’s as necessary as food and air,” Binko says.
That's why it's important to get a medical diagnosis and treatment when you have insomnia, he says. Self-medicating with over-the-counter sleep aids is not a good solution for the long run. You can get to the point where you can't sleep without them.
“Understanding the root cause is a key component in addressing restlessness and determining which lifestyle changes are necessary,” he says.
If you know someone with chronic insomnia, don't assume you know what they're going through. Instead, ask questions and educate yourself about the condition. And if you have the condition, don't let myths and misconceptions about insomnia stop you from seeking help.
"Everybody is different, so you have to listen to what your body is telling you, and not listen to someone who shames you for talking about it,” Alana says.