Sleep & Phobia

By Maria Ramos
Last Updated: August 15, 2018

Many sleep problems are intertwined with many types of anxiety disorders. Some of the most debilitating examples of the latter are phobias, which are characterized by persistent and consistent fears of certain situations or objects. There is one condition that stands out in terms of both sleep health and mental health, as it sits right in the middle: sleep dread, also sometimes called somniphobia or hypnophobia. As the name implies, sleep dread is the fear of going to sleep; and though it sounds simple, the phobia can have some complicated manifestations. There is no universal cause of sleep dread.

What Is Sleep Dread?

We know what it means, but how does it work? When you dread going to sleep, what happens? Judging by the definition, it is safe to assume that the typical result of sleep dread is insomnia—or, at the very least, restless tossing and turning.

Why does this happen? Shouldn’t the body’s sleep regulation processes overcome negative or nagging thoughts after a certain point? It’s not that easy. Even if the body wants to rest, with sleep dread it is also processing the fear that is being felt, which is counterproductive. Enough fear and acute stress can activate the human body’s fight-or-flight response, which results in an increase in hormones that keep you awake: adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. You may want to get some rest—to overcome sleep dread—but the body responds to hormones better than it responds to feelings. These hormones are designed to keep you alert and awake and ready to action in case you are threatened and need to take quick action; basically, the opposite of what you need to drift off into dreamland. Even if you do eventually fall asleep, chances of the sleep being actually restful and refreshing aren’t good.

Close up view of a sleeping woman with unkempt hair

What Causes a Fear of Sleep?

Some cases of sleep dread are fairly straightforward. The phobia may develop as a result of extreme anxiety connected to what happens during slumber. Chronic night terrors and recurring nightmares are examples of what can lead to sleep dread; the former is common in children but can also affect adults, and the latter can also be a symptom of grief and loss, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Other causes have to do with conditions that may lead to unpredictable actions and repercussions while asleep; examples are sleepwalking or sleep apnea. People who sleepwalk and have had negative experiences waking up—in a compromising, dangerous or unfamiliar place or position—may stress about the same or worse happening again. People with sleep apnea may fear dying in their due to breathing problems.

Surprisingly, sleep dread can also develop as an offshoot of being concerned about not getting enough proper sleep. As contradictory as that seems, it’s not unusual at all for concern to turn into excessive worrying. Anxiety has a way of disrupting logical thought processes in ways that can seem unbelievable to those not directly suffering from it. Stressing over getting enough rest or having to go through the regular routine of sleeping and experiencing the aforementioned conditions can be seen as a form of performance anxiety, if that makes it easier to understand. Sleep should be a time of rest and relaxation, but with stress and anxiety mixed in, it can feel like a high pressure job or a performance you simply can’t mess up.

Can You Have Sleep Dread and Not Know It?

It is strange and curious when someone is suffering from a debilitating condition and is unaware of it. Sleep dread can be subtle and insidious. For instance, some people may not have any actual anxiety about sleep itself, or any difficulty falling asleep when they choose to do so; but they may stretch out their waking hours to an unhealthy degree. The reason for this may be that they dislike going to school or work, and like the time they get to themselves after their responsibilities have been fulfilled. To get more hours of perceived happiness and enjoyment before the day ends, without avoiding commitments and appointments, they shave time off sleep. When people do this enough times, it becomes habit; and unknowingly, they are teaching themselves to dread sleep.

Another similar situation is when someone has insomnia; particularly the kind that is caused by physical rather than mental issues, such as asthma, chronic pain or severe allergies. When a person has insomnia that originates from something other than anxiety, depression or any other mental condition or trauma, it’s easy to overlook a slowly developing phobia. One of the most obvious signs is arranging one’s daily schedule around the insomnia, often in the form of maintaining coping mechanisms. For example: spending excessive amounts of time in bed, even when it’s not time to sleep; avoiding strenuous and tiring activities to the point of foregoing social interactions and regular exercise; and making life-changing decisions such as quitting a job, giving up on a goal or dream, or ending a relationship. When a person makes these sort of allowances due to insomnia, it is safe to assume that they dread sleep to the point of giving up a normal life.

What Can You Do About It?

We started this article by stating that sleep dread is a phobia, which in turn is an anxiety disorder. Many of the steps you can take to reduce sleep-depriving stress and worry have already been discussed in this article: Sleep & Anxiety.

To add to those, there is this little tidbit of wisdom that may sound trite: face your fears and you will have a better chance of overcoming them. Whether or not you intend to seek professional help—though if sleep dread is affecting your health and life dramatically, we do strongly urge you to do so—you need to come to terms with the truth. If the symptoms seem familiar, admit to yourself that you may have a problem; you may have a phobia, whether or not it fits your preconceived notions of that a phobia is supposed to be like. That is the first step of many that you will have to take; getting through and over this condition is no simple task, and it’s going to take time to undo bad habits and familiar routines. But if you alter your way of thinking and your perspective, it’s easier to make small and positive changes that will result in bigger and better improvements down the line—and eventually, a consistent good night’s rest.