An Analysis of Somniphobia – the Fear of Falling Asleep
There are few things which can be said to be truly universal for every human being on Earth, but this is: We all need to sleep.
This is something so basic that it can be easy to take it for granted. What other aspect of life today is so equal? We consider death to be “The Great Equalizer,” but we are all likewise equal before our need to sleep—and can live to tell the tale.
But that doesn’t mean that the tale isn’t a harrowing one for some. On the contrary, for some, the prospect of falling asleep can be downright terrifying. Some have a fear of death before falling asleep some can’t sleep scared someone will break in while they are in a deep sleep.
So what is the fear of falling asleep, what is it called, what are its causes, triggers, and symptoms, and if you suffer from it, what can you do to get a good night’s sleep again? First you must learn what it is you must cope with so let’s dig in.
What is the Fear of Falling Asleep called?
In this case, it’s somniphobia. It derives its name from “Somnus,” an Ancient Greek ideal of Sleep as a personified concept.
One thing to note at the start is that, while somniphobia and a generalized fear of sleeping are not the same as insomnia, the former can contribute to the latter. If you are afraid of falling asleep, you may consciously or subconsciously struggle against doing so, which in turn could leave you with insomnia and all the health problems it can cause. If you struggle with nightmares, that can obviously impact your fear of sleep as well.
Tackling somniphobia thus means taking on a whole host of other conditions.
The Varying Shapes of Somniphobia
One of the most difficult aspects of diagnosing a fear of falling asleep phobia is that those fears take on many different shapes. There is the fear of falling asleep and not waking up, and this is connected to but still distinct from the fear of dying when falling asleep—and that’s not even addressing the fears surrounding different types of nightmares.
Simply put, there are any number of reasons why you might be losing sleep over sleeping. On the one hand, that may not be the kind of thing you want to read before going to bed. On the other hand, hopefully it will help contextualize your particular phobia, help you understand it and, in the process, allow you to sleep easier at night.
Causes and Triggers for the Fear of Sleeping
There are many potential causes of somniphobia, with some of the most common being as follows:
- Nightmares: Everyone has nightmares, but some of us have more of them than others or experience them more intensely. This can contribute to somniphobia.
- Anxiety: The more anxiety you have, the greater trouble you may have falling asleep. Unsurprisingly, this is especially true if the source of your anxiety is the idea of sleep itself. What’s more, not only can anxiety keep you from falling asleep, even when you are able to do so, it can increase the likelihood of you experiencing nightmares. This creates a vicious circle of sleeplessness, nightmares, terror, and fatigue.
- Sleepwalking: While the causes of sleepwalking are themselves still subject to study, anxiety over doing so can morph into a fear of sleeping as a whole.
- Fear of death: In perhaps the most famous speech in English literature, Hamlet famously connects “that sleep of death” with “what dreams may come.” Hamlet’s metaphor underlines and conflates the fear of death and the unknown, which Hamlet describes as “the Undiscovered Country” and which can likewise contribute to a fear of falling asleep and not waking up.
- Horrific imagery: Works such as Hamlet tap into that fear and connection of sleep and death, but films such as the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise take it to another level. While they may be considered cheap slasher movies, the fact they draw a far more literal (and extremely graphic) connection between sleep and death can cause or heighten a fear of dying when falling asleep as happens in the films.
- Personal trauma: If you have suffered a traumatic incident linked with sleep, it can cause an overarching phobia. For example, if you come to link sleep with death because of a loved one who died in their sleep, that deeply traumatic moment can metastasize into a full-blown phobia.
Some of the most common symptoms of somniphobia include the following:
- A feeling of general anxiety even when thinking about falling asleep.
- An increasing sense of anxiety and fear as bedtime draws closer.
- Deliberately keeping yourself up or avoiding sleep.
- An inability to focus.
- Mood swings.
- Panic attacks.
- Difficulty remembering things.
- Nausea and an upset stomach.
- Chest tightness.
- Elevated heart rate.
- Excessive sweating and chills.
In addition, children can experience clinginess, throw tantrums, or otherwise resist sleeping or being left alone at bedtime.
Diagnosing the Fear of Sleeping
One of the trickiest aspects of this condition is diagnosing it and distinguishing it from other conditions which may get in the way of sleep. After all, we all have difficulty sleeping sometimes. How can you distinguish somniphobia from insomnia, or even from simply being unable to obtain restful sleep?
Some of the most characteristic factors in diagnosing a fear of sleep in particular include:
- A dip in the quality of your sleep, especially if this is persistent and directly related to feelings of fear or anxiety.
- Your mental or physical health being directly and negatively affected.
- The lack of sleep being severe enough to cause problems in your personal or professional life.
- Suffering from the condition for a sustained period of time (at least six months).
- Having an aversion to sleep in particular, separate from other potential issues.
Treatment Options for Somniphobia
One of the first things you’ll want to do when it comes to figuring out how to treat somniphobia is make your bedroom sleep-friendly. What this means will differ for different people. For some, it may mean having a room that’s nice and dark, while those with a fear of the dark may find a nightlight comforting. Above all, you need to do everything possible to make sure you are at ease and that the room feels “safe.”
Some patients benefit from exposure therapy. This involves direct controlled exposure to the causes of your fear. For example, you may be asked to discuss the underlying causes of your fear, or view and cope with images of the things partially causing your fear of falling asleep anxiety. Naturally, exposure therapy is different for everyone. What does not change, however, is the controlled environment and strong support with which exposure therapy is carried out by trained mental health professionals.
You may also be asked to try relaxation and visualization techniques. For example, you may be asked to “visualize” peaceful images, or yourself sleeping peacefully.
Then there is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT involves rewiring your brain away from negative associations with the thing you fear. This can be helpful in avoiding thinking about aspects of sleep which cause you anxiety.
Finally, there are medicine-based options. Beta blockers can be used to battle general anxiety, while benzodiazepines can help sedate you. The latter in particular can be addictive, however, and both are designed for short-term use only. CONSULT YOUR PHYSICIAN BEFORE TAKING ANY MEDICATIONS.
Living with a fear of sleep can be a waking nightmare. By confronting the condition head-on, however, you can get the good night’s sleep you need and deserve.