A FEAR OF GOING TO SLEEP (ONEIROPHOBIA) SYMPTOMS, CAUSES AND TREATMENT
When someone says they are afraid to go to sleep you wonder at this curious statement and what possibly could have caused it. Aside from the usual fears of losing control the person begins to describe more specifically their fear of dreaming. Because dreams are irrational and often expose feelings that are hard to accept it becomes so uncomfortable for some people that they tried to avoid it any way they can.
Dr. Mark Blecher coined the term oneirophobia in his book The Dream Frontier as a fear of going to sleep. He described the symptoms as typical of most phobias. They included things like shortness of breath, heart palpitations, nausea, dry mouth, shaking, physical symptoms of illness and an inability to speak or think clearly. His point was that the core of the problem, however, was a pattern of thinking rather than the symptoms presented. It is a fear of the irrational way in which dreams unfold. The person thinks that they are losing their sanity and entering a dream world more terrifying than Rod Sterling’s “Twilight Zone.” It is the same pattern of thinking that we can feel from a safe distance when we are reading horror stories or seeing scary movies.
Its just like a panic attack. It starts with a feeling of uncontrollable anxiety but in this case its the dream state. Like a vortex it pulls you in closer and closer to that irrational emotional black hole. Disintegration without the possibility of waking up to a sane logical world sends shock waves through your body. Your inner voice screams out do everything possible to avoid that state of mind! Just as paranoia heightens one’s senses it is not uncommon for people to say they realize their fears are exaggerated and they know they are not acting in a normal way.
The mental symptoms that go on in this state can be shared by other exaggerated fears or phobias. Thoughts become obsessive and it is hard to think about anything other than the fear of dreaming. Specific intense images from previous dreams ratchet up the intensity. Feelings of unreality and being detached are usually felt before the overriding fear of losing control.
There are several possible causes of a fear of falling asleep. One might have a nightmare that was so vivid that is indistinguishable from reality. The intensity of this experience is so overwhelming that the fear comes from a possible reoccurrence of this dream. Sometimes, particularly with reoccurring dreams. There is a tendency to view it as a bad omen or a sign that something bad will happen in one’s own life. The third possibility stems from dreams that coincidentally become true in real life. All three of these causes break the barrier between dreaming and reality. The psychotic like intensity of the dream world becomes pervasive that the only way people can control it is by not sleeping. People with this phobia may avoid sleeping by taking stimulants or even reducing the length of time that the sleep to make it so short that they do not enter the REM state.
Treatment includes psychotherapy and sleep therapy. Sleep studies may be done to determine a specific sleeping pattern. Hypnotherapy may also be beneficial in some cases. Sleeping aids such as benzodiazepines may help initially but will be detrimental in the long run.
Although there is little formal specialization there are therapists who deal primarily in treating phobias. Seeing a therapist with much experience in sleep phobia would be a good start.
The core of treatment of this phobia is to combat the fear of losing control. Any way of maintaining a positive approach and to anticipate any future loss will reduce the fear that starts the phobia. One way to control a phobia is to ignore it, which is easier said then done. However, there is always the possibility that thinking or talking about it will create more fear and anxiety, which might make the phobia worse.
Education, or biblio-therapy is very effective in reducing the effect of phobias. The second most effective method of treatment is group therapy or support groups.
Hypnotherapy has been one possible solution because it helps to reprogram the subconscious pattern of this fear. However, because hypnotism shares, the feeling of loss of control with sleeping makes it hard to complete this form of treatment.
Neural linguistic programming has also been found to be useful since it is basically the study and practice of how we create our reality. The specific programs or constructs that bring forth this phobia are reprogrammed.