Has anyone managed to sleep this week? As in, gotten into bed, closed their eyes, and stayed asleep for more than 37 minutes? For those of us who look back longingly on slumbers of years past (when we only had to deal with our baseline apocalyptic levels of anxiety), anxiety-inducing events can seem like they’re perpetually looming just around the corner.
Depending on your usual ability to sleep, you may make it through a sleepless night or two relatively unscathed and semi-functional, but take a turn for the worse after that. By then, you’re still dealing with everything that was making you anxious during the day, but there’s a new level of anxiety resulting from worrying about whether you’ll ever actually sleep again, which, in turn, makes it even harder to fall asleep.
There’s a name for that — “somniphobia” — and it’s something people experience all the time, regardless of whether the rest of the world is crumbling around them. Here’s what you need to know about sleep anxiety and how to get rid of it.
What is somniphobia?
By now, we’re all painfully familiar with the idea that anxiety disrupts our sleep. And while it’s unfortunate that it happens, that’s also something that most people can recognise as it’s happening, allowing them to identify the root causes of the anxiety and take the steps necessary to address it.
But somniphobia is a different category altogether: it’s the fear and/or extreme anxiety around the thought of sleeping. In other words, the thing keeping you up at night is anxiety caused by fear of either not falling asleep, or in other cases, falling asleep. (Apologies if you’re reading this in a sleep-deprived state — this phrasing is tricky even when you’re running on a full tank.)
Given our current situation, we’re going to focus on anxiety prompted by worrying about what happens if we aren’t able to get to sleep. (More on that in a minute). The other end of the spectrum — anxiety caused by the idea of actually falling asleep — is absolutely something people experience too, and referred to as “sleep dread.” These are typically situations where a person is scared of falling asleep because they are afraid of what will happen, like if they have extremely vivid recurring nightmares, sleepwalk, or experience sleep paralysis. But we’ll save that variety for another day.
What are the symptoms of somniphobia?
Even though you may be familiar with how general anxiety feels, there are a few ways that your mind and body react specific to the fear of whether you’re able to fall asleep.
According to Dr. Virginia Runko, a behavioural sleep medicine specialist and psychologist in Washington, D.C., somniphobia can be an offshoot of insomnia. “People who have problems falling asleep see how that affects them during the day, and so there’s this anxiety around how the night will go,” she told The Healthy. “Sleepless nights are a terrible experience, and no one wants to go through that.”
But it’s more than feeling tired the next day. Runko says it’s important to keep in mind that because sleep anxiety is a phobia (i.e. an irrational fear), it can become a disruption of your everyday life and activities, and end up taking a serious toll on your mental health.
Mental symptoms of somniphobia
Aside from fatigue, exhaustion, and the usual effects of sleep deprivation, some of the mental symptoms of somniphobia can include, per Healthline:
- feeling fear and anxiety when thinking about sleeping
- experiencing distress as it gets closer to bedtime
- avoiding going to bed or staying up as long as possible
- having panic attacks when it’s time to sleep
- having trouble focusing on things besides sleep-related worry and fear
- experiencing irritability or mood swings
- having a hard time remembering things
Physical symptoms of somniphobia
This type of anxiety can also cause symptoms in the rest of your body (also c/o Healthline):
- nausea or other stomach issues related to persistent anxiety around sleep
- tightness in your chest and increased heart rate when thinking about sleep
- sweating, chills, and hyperventilation or other trouble breathing when you think about sleeping
- in children, crying, clinginess, and other resistance to bedtime, including not wanting caregivers to leave them alone
A few more things to keep in mind: Though having a fear of dying is more closely associated with being afraid that you will fall asleep (and then, presumably, die in your sleep), it can also work the other way. As in, if one of the reasons you’re so anxious about not being able to sleep is that you’re scared of dying from (among other things) a lack of sleep, that will probably make your somniphobia worse.
Finally, if you’re someone who can’t fall asleep without the TV on, or listening to music or a podcast as you drift off, that could be your coping mechanism for dealing with somniphobia — regardless of whether or not you realise why you’re doing it.
How can we deal with somniphobia?
Like any other phobia, there is no single “cure” for the fear surrounding whether or not you’ll fall asleep — but that doesn’t mean all hope of a decent night’s sleep is lost.
If you’ve already reached the point of not being able to sleep because of anxiety over whether or not you’ll be able to sleep, chances are you’ve already tried all the usual recommendations. This is not the time to roll out suggestions like journaling before bed, setting and sticking to a bedtime routine, or taking melatonin (which, as we’ve already noted, isn’t a sleep hack anyway). Though well-meaning, for someone dealing with somniphobia, recommendations like these from friends, family members, or even medical professionals can come across as condescending — suggesting that even though falling asleep is a major problem for you, you never considered drinking chamomile tea.
Like insomnia, somniphobia can disrupt your sleep for shorter periods of time, or become a chronic problem that seriously impacts your ability to function in day-to-day life. If you fall into the second category, it’s time to see a medical professional, because the effects of sleep deprivation are no joke.
But if you’re new to somniphobia or only experience it from time to time, the first thing you need to do is figure out what, specifically, is triggering it, and come up with a strategy from there, Dr. Martin Seif, a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety in Greenwich, Connecticut told The Healthy. Here are a few of the possibilities:
Generalised anxiety disorder
At this point it may seem like we’ve come full circle with regards to anxiety and sleep, but it’s more nuanced than that. Right now, it’s safe to say most — if not all — people have at least one reason for feeling anxious stemming from something happening in the country or world (take your pick).
But, as we pointed out in this article from August, there is a difference between experiencing the emotion of anxiety, and having an anxiety disorder. Not only is a generalised anxiety disorder something that disrupts your life on a longer-term basis, it usually doesn’t limit your anxiety to one particular situation or fear (hence, being generalised).
This means that you’re probably not going to feel that much better when what appears to be the main trigger of your anxiety has been dealt with. Instead, your brain will promptly move on to something else, continuously scanning for things to worry about. These concerns will frequently be out-of-proportion to their actual impact, and could involve methodically walking yourself through all of the possible worst-case scenarios.
Which (finally) brings us to somniphobia. If you have generalised anxiety disorder, your brain may focus on — and catastrophise — what would happen if you didn’t sleep. If this sounds familiar and you’ve haven’t already spoken to a mental health professional about it, now’s the time.
On the other hand, if the information above on experiencing the emotion of anxiety tied to a specific situation or event sounds familiar, take it from there. Again, it might not be that obvious though — especially now, during a period of extreme stress.
For example, yes, you’re probably anxious about the whole global pandemic situation, but your actual somniphobia could stem from the anticipatory anxiety over how you’ll be able to function at work the following day, Seif explains. Being able to narrow it down can then give us the opportunity to rationally think through the cause of our anxiety — and the potential solutions — instead of simply feeling paralysed by anxiety and not understanding why.
As Runko explained, somniphobia can be an offshoot of insomnia. If that’s true in your case, can you try to approach your sleep anxiety from the perspective of it being a normal symptom of another condition, and then work with a doctor to figure out how best to treat your insomnia (which can vary significantly from person to person).