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Sleep Phobias Explained

By: Jennie Kermode - Updated: 25 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Sleep Phobia Insomnia Hypnophobia

Many people have problems with nightmares or with different types of fear that can stop them getting to sleep at night, but what happens if you have a fear of sleep itself? This may sound odd but it's actually quite common, affecting 4-8% of the population at some time in life. It's difficult to treat but not insurmountable, and knowing what's going wrong can help you to restore control over your life and get the relaxation you need.

Diagnosing Sleep Phobia

Like many phobias, sleep phobias (referred to medically as hypnophobia or somniphobia) often develop slowly. They are easiest to treat if diagnosed early, so it's useful to know what symptoms to look out for. If you have three or more of the following, it's time to start thinking about whether sleep itself is frightening to you.

  • Increase in heart rate as you start to nod off.
  • Sudden bursts of rapid breathing when you feel sleepy.
  • Feeling nervous when talking or thinking about sleep.
  • Feeling nervous at bedtime.
  • Starting to feel sick as bedtime approaches.
  • Feeling very sweaty and restless when you go to bed.
You can talk to your GP if you are worried about any of these symptoms, though not all GPs are confident about treating phobias and you may need to be referred to a specialist.

Anaesthesia and Inebriation

Fear of sleep can also manifest as a fear of losing consciousness or losing control more generally. Many people with sleep phobias are frightened of receiving anaesthetics or even of being sedated in a hospital. Sometimes anxiety about a situation like this can lead to problems with sleep on a nightly basis. If you are worried about an upcoming operation, tell staff in the department where you will be treated and they can arrange for a meeting where you can discuss what will happen.

Sleep phobias can also be related to a fear of inebriation, such as getting drunk. Of course, it's quite possible to live a fulfilling life without ever getting inebriated, but if you experience this sort of fear it should sound a warning bell about your risk of sleep phobia.

Causes of Sleep Phobia

There can be many different triggers for sleep phobia. Most people experience it briefly as babies (not counted in the adult statistics) because we are not born with an understanding of sleep. As a baby loses consciousness it fears it is going to die. It has to learn from experience that it will wake up again and things will be okay. Similar types of fear can develop in adults, especially in connection with traumatic events, such as falling asleep and awakening in hospital after a health crisis.

Although nightmares are, strictly speaking, a different type of problem, fear of experiencing nightmares can lead to a fear of sleep that persists even if the nightmares themselves stop happening. Similar problems can occur when people have woken up to traumatic events, such as house fires, with the brain associating the process of falling asleep with the frightening situation.

Sleep phobias can also occur for more mundane reasons. They are often related to anxiety disorders and to low blood sugar levels. Your GP can help you to investigate this possibility. Many people with this sort of problem are able to resolve it by changing their eating habits.

Dealing with Sleep Phobia

Where more practical changes are unable to successfully counter sleep phobias, they have to be approached as a psychological problem. You can do this on your own, with the help of a trained counsellor, or with the help of a friend or family member. Many people find that having a trusted person in the room while they go to sleep makes all the difference. If you don't have anybody to help you like this, don't be embarrassed to turn to a pet, or even a teddy bear, for company.

Tackling sleep phobia is all about reducing anxiety and training yourself to feel safe in your sleep environment. Little things like leaving a night light on or moving mirrors can make a big difference, as can using scented oil to provide a comforting smell or leaving a favourite radio station on at low volume to provide comforting sounds.

Don't panic if sleep doesn't come quickly. Remember that deep relaxation is the next best thing. Don't set yourself difficult goals but simply let yourself feel at peace and you will find yourself on the road to recovery.

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