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You were lying in your bed, you were feeling kind of sleepy. But you couldn’t close your eyes because the room was getting creepy.” – Bob from VeggieTales
Yes, this is a lyric from a song in a children’s TV show (I loved VeggieTales!). However, I find that it rings true for those struggling with Somniphobia (pronounced [sohm-neh-fo-bee-ah]). Somniphobia is defined as an irrational or abnormal fear of sleep. You lay in bed, tossing and turning, unable to shut off your racing mind. Or you fall asleep but can’t stay asleep and find yourself awake all hours of the night. Your anxiety related to sleep is so consuming that you spend your days exhausted.
Numerous diagnoses can affect your sleep, including depression, anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, there are a couple that most directly impact you when you are asleep—sleepwalking (F51.3) and sleep terrors (F51.4). Also, though not a mental health diagnosis, Sleep Apnea can negatively impact your quality of sleep.
- CDC research has shown that 50-70 million adults have a sleep disorder
- According to the American Sleep Association, 30% of adults have dealt with insomnia
- This research states that 3-7% of men and 2-5% of women suffer from sleep apnea
- This equates to approximately 25 million adults in the US according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine
Why is Sleep Important?
Obviously, we know sleep is important and it is ingrained in us as a natural part of life. But do we really know why it’s so important? Sleep is essential to life: you will die if you cannot sleep. The longest recorded time a human has lived without sleep was 11 days. I’ll go ahead and just say that I don’t think this will ever be fully studied due to the consequences, but a lack of sleep seriously affects our functioning.
While you’re sleeping, it is believed that your body is taking this time to repair neurons & build networks. The body’s cells increase production, protein creation, and brain development. Sleep is associated with improved memory and cognitive functioning. While I can’t go into all the details here if you’re interested in more of the life-giving benefits of sleep, head on over to this site.
Why are you Afraid to Sleep?
With such a large amount of the population struggling with sleep-related disorders, it is important to understand some of the root causes. Here we list some of the most common reasons you may fear sleep, either physiological or psychological (some could honestly fall under both).
These are the top physiological reasons people are afraid to sleep:
Restless Leg Syndrome
Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS), most simply put, is an irresistible urge to move one’s legs when trying to sleep. Some describe the symptoms like a burning, tingling, or creeping sensation that is only relieved with movement. However, movement tends to be a temporary fix. For those with primary RLS, there is no known cause. But whatever the cause, there is a physical response that delays or prevents sleep.
Sleepwalking, in my opinion, is a very dangerous sleep disorder. It occurs when someone is in deep sleep, typically before REM sleep. The mental image is of someone in a zombie-like trance, walking slowly with arms stretched outwards. I struggled with this when I was a teenager, with my Grandpa experiencing one of my episodes. He said I walked out of my room sobbing uncontrollably & would not answer when spoken to. Luckily for me, I simply walked to our staircase then turned around and walked right back to bed.
For others, this phenomenon can be more disconcerting. Any number of things could happen—you can fall and hurt yourself, leave your home, & put yourself in a number of dangerous situations. If you suffer from this disorder, you may worry that when you sleep you may hurt yourself. Or even have hurt yourself in the past. You may struggle with how to protect yourself, & fear falling asleep.
So what is Sleep Apnea? According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, it is “when the upper airway becomes blocked repeatedly during sleep, reducing or completely stopping airflow” (obstructive). There is also a type of apnea where the brain doesn’t send the needed signals to breathe while asleep (central).
You literally stop breathing when you sleep.
I don’t know about you, but I find this a wee little nervewracking. My Dad has struggled with sleep apnea for years, and while there are medical means in place to help one consistently breathe while sleeping (a CPAP, pictured below), it’s scary. Being unable to breathe for 10 seconds to a minute can significantly affect sleep quality & in some instances can lead to more significant issues—even death. This is a nice segue into the number one reason people fear sleep.
Fear of death (Thanataphobia) can be closely related to Somniphobia. Death is sometimes referred to as “the big sleep” where you simply go to bed—but don’t wake up. We’ve all heard stories of older relatives passing away in their sleep and while it’s sold as a “peaceful” way to go, it’s still death. Unfortunately, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is a reason parents are hyper-vigilant with a sleeping child. If you’ve lost a loved one this way, attempting to sleep can bring feelings of deep anxiety and dread.
Psychological issues can wreak havoc on your sleep, which is why I cover a few of the top issues.
Depression & Anxiety
For those suffering from depression and anxiety, attempting to sleep can seem like a circus act. I know from personal experience that your mind races, covering everything from what you need to get done (or didn’t get done) to worrying about how someone perceived you that day. Before you know it, an hour or two has come and gone and you’re still lying awake worrying. And then you worry about not getting enough sleep for the day head & everything needing to get done…and the cycle continues.
When I was 9, my family lost our house when it was struck by lightning. Within an hour, our three-story home was reduced to ash. We were safe visiting family at the time. But I remember waking up to the sound of my Mom crying when she got the news. As a child, I struggled to sleep, wondering if I’d wake to her crying again. I couldn’t sleep during thunderstorms without her nearby to calm me.
For me, when I tried to sleep I would replay the loss in my head. For someone who has experienced some sort of trauma, the quiet that comes with bedtime gives way to these thoughts. It was after this loss that I began to develop re-occurring nightmares that continued well into my teenage years.
While the technical name is now Sleep Terrors, many of us are more familiar with “night terrors”. You appear awake and deep in fear, perhaps screaming or lashing out but when awoken have little to no memory of the experience. This occurs early in the sleep cycle & be concurrent with sleep-walking. These occurrences are less common than nightmares.
Most children and adults will experience nightmares at some point in their life. For me, I had continuing nightmares that for some reason took the form of characters from Alice in Wonderland. It was always the cards coming after me to take me to the queen. Though it sounds silly when I describe it, I would often awake in terror, fearing for my life. Just the thought of falling asleep into that nightmare left me quaking in my bed (I’ve never been able to watch that movie again).
The symptoms of Somniphobia can be obvious, but I’ll lay some out for you.
- The inability to fall asleep when you go to bed.
- The inability to stay asleep.
- Excessive sleepiness during the day when at work or school.
- Inability to focus or complete a task.
- Memory loss, short or long-term.
- Severe mood swings or an inability to regulate emotions.
- Lack of interested in things that you enjoy.
How to Overcome Your Fear of Sleep
While I understand there is not a quick fix for curing your insomnia, especially if it’s related to deep-seated fears, I’m gonna give you some ideas.
1. The first and most important thing is this: YOU MUST identify the source of your fear in order to know how to treat it. This is your first step.
2. While not a specific treatment for somniphobia, there are some basic things you can do to help insomnia:
- Go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time every day. This will line up with your natural circadian rhythm and your built-in schedule. Likewise, try and get your children on a decently consistent schedule.
- Do not crawl into bed and turn the tv on and zone out. Your bed should only be associated with sleep and certain other extracurricular activities.
- The American Sleep Association has a tip that I really like—if you can’t fall asleep within 10 minutes, get out of bed and sit in a chair or read a book somewhere else until you’re sleepy.
- Maybe this is a no-brainer, but do not drink anything caffeinated within 4-6 hours of going to bed. Also evaluate if you need to drink caffeine it all, it can strongly affect your ability to fall asleep.
- Do something you find relaxing, to help you enter a calm state of mind before crawling into your warm and comfy bed.
- DO NOT take naps! Though it may feel like it helps in the short-term, it will make it more difficult for you to get your full amount of sleep at bedtime.
3. If there is a physiological reason you are unable to sleep and it’s causing you anxiety, seek medical treatment. Sleep Apnea, Restless Leg Syndrome, etc. all have available treatments to get you the rest you need. If you are concerned about the possibility of having one of these diagnoses, see your Doctor immediately. You may do a sleep study that would help pinpoint your exact issue which can aid in treatment.
4. While the fear of death or the unknown can be a legitimate fear, you also have to recognize that your body needs sleep to truly live. If you’ve lost a family member or loved one while they slept, it is important to acknowledge and recognize that this may be the root of your sleep anxiety. Talking to someone, whether it be a friend or a professional, can greatly aid in processing this.
5. If you believe (or are even suspicious) there is a psychological reason you are unable to sleep (like the ones I mentioned above) see a licensed therapist. If you know that anxiety is your issue, it is extremely useful in treatment. The treatment for insomnia due to PTSD or trauma is going to be different—and I am not 100% qualified to tell you what to do. This is why we partner with BetterHelp, because we truly believe they are a resource that will help you overcome your fear.
6. Read this long and informative article before bed as a sleep-aid. Who knows, it might work!
What else have you done to overcome your sleep anxiety and cure somniphobia? Hopefully our tips can you help you sleep happily without fear!