It is very common for children to be afraid of going to bed for a number of reasons, but when that emotional distress persists beyond all reason or reassurance it can be the result of Somniphobia, the fear of sleep.
Somniphobia is a specific phobia that focuses on the fear of going to sleep. It is also known as Hypnophobia after the Greek god of sleep, but its current nomenclature is more commonly used. It is characterized by not only an inability to fall asleep (i.e. Insomnia) but also a overriding anxiety and even terror at the prospect of falling asleep. In fact, the sufferer may go to great lengths to avoid even laying down or trying to sleep. This fear is often irrational and persists even when the individual is certain that they have nothing to fear. It can be commonly seen in children who are suffering from night terrors but there does not need to be a secondary sleep disorder for an individual to suffer from this specific phobia. Some if not all patients with Somniphobia are capable of falling asleep and do so regularly, but may often avoid bedtime and stay awake far later than is healthy in an effort to avoid sleep. As with many phobias, this is not just the fear of sleep but a persistent and enduring fear even in the face of the knowledge or reassurance that there is no danger to be found in sleeping.
It may be difficult to recognize the symptoms of Somniphobia unless the patient suffering from it verbalizes their fears, but there are other telltale symptoms that may point to this specific phobia. Somniphobia may be indicated by night terrors or panic attacks a bedtime, and this is especially true in the case of children who suffer from the disorder. In some cases, those suffering from Somniphobia may willfully attempt to avoid sleep by keeping busy or taking stimulents to promote wakefulness. Daytime activity may be hindered by extreme drowsiness or chronic fatigue. Individuals who are unable to get sufficient sleep as a result of their Somniphobia may be very irritable and subject to wide swings in mood. Work or school may suffer as a result of an inability to concentrate, focus on a task, or remain productive. This state may also have other repercussions such as a significantly lowered immune system and the mental symptoms of serious sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation may reduce the level of awareness of the patient, making them seem “out of it” or unresponsive to friends and family. They may even feel that their actions are out of their control or experience both long-term and short-term memory loss. If left untreated, Somniphobia can be one of the most debilitating of the specific phobias.
Somniphobia is attained in much the same way as other phobias. It is commonly agreed by mental health professionals that phobias emerge due to a combination of biological disposition and early trauma. However, the level of trauma may vary widely from individual to individual. However, Somniphobia is commonly associated with two distinct causal elements: mental and physiological. Mental causes include the fear of having nightmares while asleep or difficulty forgetting nightmares, but some have a triggering traumatic event related to sleep that contributes to the implacable anxiety they suffer when going to bed. The physiological causes may be linked to other sleep conditions that are contributing to the anxiety. Sleep apnea is one such contributing condition, with patients waking up in the middle of the night unable to breathe. Other patients may suffer from somnambulism (sleepwalking) or talking in their sleep. Some people may be more prone to Somniphobia or other phobias due to genetic disposition and it can be an inherited disorder.
When individuals are losing significant amounts of sleep due to their fears about sleeping, immediate mental health treatment is required. Treatment may initially take the form of mental health counseling or psychotherapy to determine factors that are contributing to this phobia. During treatment, psychotherapists often use dream analysis or dream journaling as a way for the patient to confront their fears and determine what may be causing nightmares or night terrors. Younger children may need to be educated in the process of dreaming and exactly why their dreams cannot physically hurt them. Talking with a mental health professional is often the most effective method of rooting out the deep-seeded issues that are making sleep frightening. Exposure therapy may be conducted it observe the extent to which the patient is either dealing with their fears or avoiding sleep. This may initially be assisted by medical sleep aids, but this is only considered a short-term solution because long-term use of sedatives or beta-blockers is unhealthy.
As Somniphobia is most common in children there are some steps to be taken early on to reduce the chance that it will continue to be suffered later in life. Children with Somniphobia need to be able to talk about the fears that they are experiencing without being ridiculed or having their fears dismissed. Children should be encouraged to talk about what they are afraid of and reassured that their bad dreams are a normal part of life that is harmless to them. If these fears persist, an evaluation by a mental health professional may be necessary. Children who are afraid of going to sleep need a lot of support and a caring environment where they can feel safe. For those who are suffering from Somniphobia as adults, efforts at prevention may be too late as the issues that are moving the individual to be afraid of sleep may have already occurred in early childhood. Seeking out an online or in-person support or self-help groups may be a good first step toward the self-care necessary to address these issues. Good results in preventing Somniphobia have been found in meditation or relaxation sessions prior to bedtime in order to reduce underlying anxiety. Some efforts to improve sleep hygiene, such as making a bedroom a welcoming and safe environment, may also help to reduce the intimidation that patients feel when trying to go to sleep. Having a regular, set sleep schedule may also help individuals to cope with the feelings of fear that make sleep difficult.