Scared to Sleep

These strategies may help take the dread out of going to sleep.

From the WebMD Archives

Every night, for the last 10 years, Traci Coulter has struggled to sleep. Minutes tick by, then hours. Coulter begins to fret about her to-do list the next day and all her responsibilities as a public relations executive. To make matters worse, she knows a garbage truck is coming by at 3 a.m. and will wake her up - a thought that only makes her more anxious.

“It’s an ongoing cycle of not getting the rest that I need, and it causes such anxiety for me,” says Coulter, 38, who lives in New York City. “I have nights where I sit and stew without any sleep at all.” Some nights, she’s afraid to go to bed.

Going to sleep might seem like a natural act, but for some people, sleep is a source of dread. Becoming anxious about sleep is actually a form of performance anxiety, says Alexander Obolsky, MD, a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma and stress, and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago.

Some older adults for instance, get worried because the amount of sleep they get diminishes. “They get anxious because they think they’re not sleeping enough,” Obolsky says.

Tossing and Turning

Often, dreading sleep is the result of a sleep disorder. "Sleep dread is extremely common," says Matthew Edlund, MD, director of the Center for Circadian Medicine in Sarasota, Fla., and author of The Power of Rest.

Insomnia, which affects as many as 40% of Americans at one time or another, is the most common cause of this fear. When people don’t get the sleep they need, they become concerned.

But worrying about it only worsens the insomnia, Edlund says. “We’ve turned sleep into a job,” he says. “We think, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to have enough sleep to make everything work.’ They’re worried about sleep, so they can’t sleep.”

Stalked by Chronic Nightmares

Chronic nightmares are another troublesome sleep disorder that can cause fear, says Shelby Harris, PsyD, CBSM, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the Montefiore Medical Center’s Sleep-Wake Disorders Center in New York City. Children are especially vulnerable, but adults - especially those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder -- experience nightmares, too.