Somniphobia is a medical term that describes the fear of falling asleep. Getting enough high-quality sleep is essential for staying healthy. Yet, for some people, thoughts about sleep can trigger anxiety, physical symptoms, and an urge to avoid bedtime.
It’s important to talk to a doctor, counselor, or other health care professional if you or someone you know is afraid of sleeping. Without treatment, somniphobia can cause people significant distress, lead to sleep loss, and interfere with daily life.
What is Somniphobia?
Somniphobia is the fear, or phobia, of going to sleep. People with a phobia feel extreme and irrational fear or a heightened sense of danger regarding a relatively safe situation or object. This may cause people to avoid thoughts or activities that cause them to feel this distress.
Around 12% of people develop a phobia during their lifetime. When symptoms become severe, phobias can develop into a mental health condition called an anxiety disorder. Like other phobias, fear of falling asleep can develop into a disorder if it persists over time, interferes with a person’s daily life, or causes them to avoid sleeping.
People with somniphobia are afraid of falling asleep, so a common symptom of somniphobia is fear or anxiety about sleep-related thoughts. Symptoms of anxiety may include:
- Repetitive thoughts
- Fast heartbeat
- Physical discomfort or pain
- Shortness of breath
Anxiety or fear of sleep can lead to avoidance of anything that triggers thoughts about sleep. Due to this avoidance, people with somniphobia may not get enough sleep, which can contribute to the symptoms of sleep loss. Additionally, fear and anxiety itself may make it more difficult for the body to fall asleep.
Symptoms of sleep deprivation include:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Waking up unrefreshed
- Difficulty concentrating and remembering
- Challenges controlling feelings or behavior
- Trouble at work, school, or in relationships
What Causes Somniphobia?
Doctors can’t always say what causes a person to develop a phobia. Many researchers believe that a person’s genes, brain function, and learned responses likely contribute to these intense fears.
Having a distressing or traumatic experience in a bedroom or in the dark can also lead someone to develop a fear of sleeping. Somniphobia has been linked to a variety of triggers:
- Nightmares: Studies suggest that people who have nightmares may be more likely to report being afraid of sleep. People with persistent and distressing nightmares may be diagnosed with nightmare disorder, a sleep disorder linked to somniphobia and sleep avoidance.
- Sleep paralysis: Sleep paralysis is a condition that leaves people briefly unable to talk or move when waking up or falling asleep. Frequent episodes of sleep paralysis may cause a person to develop somniphobia or avoid sleeping because they are afraid of having another episode.
- Trauma: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a condition that sometimes develops after a shocking, distressing, or traumatic event. PTSD can result in nightmares and flashbacks of the trauma, which may cause a person to not feel that it’s safe to fall asleep.
When diagnosing somniphobia, a health care professional may ask questions to understand a person’s level of fear and how it impacts their daily life. They may also assess for sleep disorders by evaluating a person’s sleep history, health, and medical history.
To diagnose a phobia, doctors consider whether a person’s symptoms meet the criteria for a disorder. Criteria used to diagnose somniphobia may include:
- Fear or anxiety related to sleep that persists for six months or longer
- The person is always, or almost always, triggered by thoughts about sleep
- Avoidance of thoughts and behaviors related to sleep
- Fear of sleep is excessive when compared to the actual risk of sleeping
- Feelings or avoidance of sleep causes distress or interfere with daily life
Treatment for somniphobia and other phobias can help people reduce the impact of their fears on their daily life. A health care or mental health provider can evaluate the causes of somniphobia and help to determine the best treatment plan based on a person’s individual needs.
Talk therapy is usually the first approach to treating phobias. Talk therapy involves working with a licensed professional to change unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and actions. There are many types of talk therapy and several have been shown to help people with phobias.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of talk therapy that focuses on helping people shift their thoughts and actions related to fears.
- Exposure therapy: One aspect of CBT is called exposure therapy, which helps people develop skills to be able to handle the fear and anxiety triggered by a phobia. After learning to tolerate fears, a person is then gradually exposed to their fear in order to reduce its impact.
- CBT for insomnia (CBT-I): CBT-I is a type of CBT that is designed to help people sleep. Studies suggest that CBT-I may reduce somniphobia. CBT-I is also used to treat conditions related to somniphobia, like insomnia, nightmares, and other sleep issues in people with PTSD.
- Group therapy: Group therapy involves engaging in talk therapy with a group of other people experiencing similar challenges. There are a variety of specialized clinics and therapy groups that may help people to overcome fears and phobias.
Prescription medications are not typically recommended for treating phobias, though they may be recommended if talk therapy is unsuccessful or not available.
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