Do You Fear Sleep? Here’s How To Manage the Anxiety-Provoking Symptoms of Somniphobia

For many people, the moment of finally lying down in bed after a long or busy day can only be described as euphoric. But for others, it can induce just the opposite feeling: fear of sleep, or somniphobia.

For people with somniphobia, closing their eyes at night can be anything but restful. “Somniphobia is a type of specific phobia characterized by marked fear and anxiety regarding falling or being asleep,” explains Evan Vida, PsyD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Anxiety & Behavior Therapy who specializes in anxiety disorders, including phobias. Someone with somniphobia may be worried about sleepwalking, sleep paralysis, or nightmares, or may be afraid of something happening to them while they’re asleep.

Because of their fear, people with somniphobia are likely to do anything they can to avoid sleeping—which can set off a vicious cycle of sleep loss and mental health issues. “This avoidance often leads to adverse health outcomes and increased anxiety, in turn increasing the chances of experiencing nightmares or poor health outcomes,” says Tirrell De Gannes, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist at the Thriving Center of Psychology.

“Avoidance [of sleep] often leads to…increased anxiety, in turn increasing the chances of experiencing nightmares or poor health outcomes.” —Tirrell De Gannes, PsyD, clinical psychologist

If this sounds familiar, don’t despair: Specific phobias, like somniphobia, are a type of anxiety disorder, and they can be treated as such with the help of a mental health professional and behavior changes. Keep reading to learn more about somniphobia, how to tell if you might have it, and what your options are for tackling this fear.

What are the symptoms of somniphobia?

“Symptoms of somniphobia include avoidance of going to sleep or falling asleep, using distraction techniques to fall asleep, and sleep deprivation,” says Dr. Vida. Going to bed or even thinking about sleep can also cause intense physiological symptoms of anxiety, like a racing heartbeat, sweating, shallow breathing, and trembling.

The fear may or may not be of sleep itself; “it can [also] be a fear of having a recurrent dream or nightmare, a fear of not knowing what happens to your mind and body while you sleep, a fear of intruders entering your home while you sleep, and so much more,” Dr. Vida explains.

Here are the most common symptoms of somniphobia:

  • Avoiding sleep
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Fear at the thought of falling asleep
  • Using distractions to sleep, like leaving the TV or lights on
  • Trouble concentrating during the day because of sleep-related fears or worries
  • Physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, sweating, shallow breathing, or shaking before bed

How rare is somniphobia?

It isn’t clear exactly how rare (or common) somniphobia is. “Research shows that less than 15 percent of people have some form of specific phobia, and there are many subtypes,” explains Dr. De Gannes. For example, germaphobia (fear of germs), entomophobia (fear of insects), thanatophobia (fear of death), cherophobia (fear of happiness), and emetophobia (fear of vomiting) are all specific phobias.

Somniphobia, specifically, is “less common than some other phobias, but precise numbers are hard to determine, as it often goes unreported,” says Alexander Alvarado, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist at Thriving Center of Psychology whose expertise includes using virtual reality exposure therapy to treat phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How is it diagnosed?

Somniphobia is diagnosed by a mental health professional based on the presence of symptoms and by excluding other sleep disorders that could be at play, Dr. Alvarado says.

The diagnosis will also depend on what exactly makes you fearful and how much the fear interferes with your everyday life, Dr. Vida says. “Many individuals may experience anxiety related to sleep at some point, but for a diagnosis of somniphobia, the fear and avoidance must be intense, persistent, and disruptive to everyday life.”

Why am I suddenly afraid of falling asleep?

Have you experienced anything scary while you were asleep or close to falling asleep? “Traumatic events, especially those related to sleep or nighttime, can trigger somniphobia,” says Dr. Alvarado. That could include having nightmares or nocturnal panic attacks, or someone breaking into your home at night. A traumatic event paired with hypervigilance (a heightened state of awareness, like being in perpetual fight-or-flight mode) is most often the cause of somniphobia, says Dr. De Gannes.

If you have another anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder, or a different mental health condition like PTSD, depression, or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), you may also be more likely to develop a specific phobia like somniphobia, says Dr. Vida.

In particular, trauma-induced insomnia associated with PTSD is known to coincide with a fear of sleep. And as noted above, any sleep-related issue (like insomnia or nightmares) can also put you at greater risk for developing a fear of sleep over time.

What is the difference between somniphobia and sleep anxiety?

If you experience negative emotions around sleep, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have somniphobia. If you’re stressed about not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep, or about not getting enough sleep, you may be dealing with sleep anxiety instead.

“Sleep anxiety may entail worrying about the consequences of not getting enough sleep, such as not being able to perform at your job the next day or being unable to stay awake during the day,” says Dr. Vida, “whereas somniphobia will be a fear targeted at the act of sleeping itself.”

Because somniphobia and sleep anxiety have different roots, they’ll come with distinct diagnoses, too. “Sleep anxiety would likely fall under a diagnosis of insomnia, whereas somniphobia would fall under a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder,” adds Dr. Vida.

Is somniphobia a mental health disorder?

Technically, somniphobia isn’t named in the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the guide that health professionals use to diagnose mental disorders. However, “it is recognized within the spectrum of anxiety disorders, particularly when the fear is irrational and severely impacts one’s life,” Dr. Alvarado explains.

To put it simply: “All phobias are irrational fears and therefore can constitute mental health disorders,” says Dr. De Gannes.

Is somniphobia genetic?

There isn’t enough research on the condition to determine whether genetics play a role. In general, however, research shows that specific phobias can have roots in both a person’s genetics and their environment.

It’s also true that genetics can influence your sleep habits, which can impact whether you get quality sleep, and potentially affect your risk of developing sleep anxiety or somniphobia. “While there is not enough evidence to suggest a direct genetic link, certain people have [abnormal] sleep-wake cycles, which can lead to sleep disturbances and differing sleep needs,” says Dr. Vida.

How is it treated?

Treatment depends on what you’re afraid of when it comes to sleep. “A trained professional will help diagnose the underlying cause of the somniphobia and work to create a treatment plan that directly targets this cause,” Dr. Vida says.

Most often, somniphobia treatment involves cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a therapeutic approach that involves changing one’s thinking patterns. In the case of phobias, CBT typically includes exposure therapy, too, which is “where individuals are gradually exposed to the feared object or situation (in this case, going to sleep) in a controlled and safe manner to reduce fear,” Dr. Vida explains.

Treatment may also include relaxation techniques and addressing any other underlying disorder, Dr. Alvarado adds. “There is some evidence that meditation and hypnotherapy (not hypnotism) can be beneficial as well,” says Dr. De Gannes.

How do I stop my phobia of sleep?

If you suspect you’re dealing with somniphobia, and it significantly affects your sleep or daily functioning, you should consult with a doctor or mental health professional, Dr. Alvarado says. After all, not getting enough sleep due to a fear of sleep can put you at risk for both additional mental health issues and physical health problems like high blood pressure and a weakened immune system.

However, if you suspect you have a mild fear of sleep or aren’t sure you’re dealing with full-fledged somniphobia, following the below lifestyle tips can help.

Pinpoint the underlying issue

“Coping with somniphobia involves taking the difficult step of confronting what it is about sleep that is causing the anxiety,” says Dr. Vida. You may be able to figure this out on your own—perhaps, for example, you identify that the underlying fear is of a home intruder while you’re sleeping. In this case, you could take steps to quell that fear, for instance double-checking that your doors and windows are shut and locked prior to going to bed.

Otherwise, however, you may need to enlist a mental health professional to help identify the root cause, says Dr. Vida, and figure out what steps you might take to mitigate it.

Steer clear of avoidance behaviors

A common trap people fall into with specific phobias is trying to avoid thinking about or confronting the thing because they’re afraid it’s too dangerous, scary, or intolerable, Dr. Vida says. For example, you might climb into bed but then scroll social media for an hour knowing that it delays the uncomfortable feelings that come from trying to fall asleep.

However, this kind of avoidance behavior only reinforces the learning that thoughts of sleep are bad and should be avoided, explains Dr. Vida. “This can lead to a ‘rebound effect,’ or the thoughts becoming more frequent and ‘stickier,’ or tougher to let go of.”

Try a bedtime meditation

“A bedtime meditation such as progressive muscle relaxation can help redirect attention away from your thoughts and bring it to your body, which can have a calming effect,” says Dr. Vida. (This practice involves tensing and releasing a variety of different muscle groups in succession, in a way that distracts your mind and allows you to tune into your breathing instead.)

You can also listen to a meditation on a free meditation app that deals more directly with your mental state. If you find that your fear of sleep is still percolating in the background, consider a mindfulness exercise that addresses the thought directly: “A mindful approach would be acknowledging the worry’s presence while also acknowledging that you don’t have to engage with it, and you can let it float by like a cloud passing,” says Dr. Vida.

“A mindful approach would be acknowledging the worry’s presence while also acknowledging that you don’t have to engage with it.” —Evan Vida, PsyD, clinical psychologist

When you gently nudge your attention back to the meditation at hand, you’re “sending the message to your thoughts that this is not the time nor place to be thinking about all the ‘what ifs,’” says Dr. Vida.

Postpone your worries

To help quiet racing thoughts at night, you might try setting aside a future chunk of time (when you’re not actively trying to fall asleep) to address them—a therapeutic distraction that can help change your relationship with the thoughts you’re having.

This might look like acknowledging the thoughts that come in and possibly even writing them down, but then telling yourself that you’re going to delay your worrying until your prescribed future “worry time,” such as 10 a.m. the next day, Dr. Vida explains.

Practice good sleep hygiene

Having good sleep hygiene means taking the proper steps to set yourself up for healthy sleep and avoiding common sleep mistakes, like staying in bed for a long period of time even when you can’t sleep. (It’s actually better to get up, move to a different location, and engage in a restful activity like reading until you actually feel sleepy, versus tossing and turning in bed.)

Other elements of good sleep hygiene include establishing a soothing bedtime routine, limiting screen time before bed, avoiding caffeine and alcohol in the evening, and maintaining a comfortable sleep environment—all of which can aid in coping with somniphobia, says Dr. Alvarado.

When to see a doctor for somniphobia

All three doctors included in this article agree that if your sleep difficulties or fear of sleep are starting to impair your quality of life or daily functioning, you should seek professional help. Try finding a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders, phobias, or sleep troubles so you can get tailored help.

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