fearI spent years in denial about my fear of sleeplessness. Just how mixed up would I look if I admitted to an anxiety that undoubtedly made my insomnia worse? The thought that I could be afraid of sleeplessness made me feel small and weak. It suggested that part of my sleep problem was learned, and that I was at fault for not being able to unlearn it.

I didn’t know anything about emotion then, or how people come to fear things like dogs or water or sleeplessness. I’ve come a long way since.

What Is Emotion?

When we talk about emotion, we’re usually referring to the visible expression of private feelings: grief following the death of a loved one, excitement at winning a trip to Hawaii, anger at mistreatment by a boss.

But for scientists, emotion has a different meaning. It refers not to feelings we’re aware of—or to the expression of these feelings—but rather to biological systems that evolved to detect and help us respond to important changes in the environment. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explains it this way: “For certain classes of clearly dangerous or clearly valuable stimuli in the internal or external environment, evolution has assembled a matching answer in the form of emotion.”

The Fear System

Each emotion is a separate system unto itself, involving different neural pathways in different parts of the brain. The fear system is among the most ancient, fundamental to human survival in a world full of predators.

The fear system is part of our make-up today. If we catch sight of a man waving a gun, that information engages the fear system, traveling rapidly to the brain and triggering the physical impulse to run or hide.

The fear system works with lightening speed; no thinking is required. “This system does its job unconsciously,” writes neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, “literally before we actually know we are in danger.” Only after the fear system has done its work are we conscious of being afraid.

Some Fears Are Acquired

Some fears develop as the result of a single negative experience. After getting bitten by a pit bull, you fear dogs. After a car accident, you’re afraid to drive on the highway.

Other fears develop following several unpleasant incidents. A series of low test scores results in the development of test anxiety. A series of concerts in which you play badly gives rise to performance anxiety.

Fear of Sleeplessness

Fear of sleeplessness may develop in a similar way. Persistent nocturnal wakefulness and anticipation of fatigue the next day, coupled with the bodily arousal this unpleasant thought gives rise to, might be just the right ingredients to create a fabulous fear-of-sleeplessness stew. Over time, darkness and the bed—or merely thoughts about the darkness and the bed—come to trigger anxiety. We’re as conditioned to fear sleeplessness at night as Pavlov’s dogs were to salivate at the ringing of a bell.

We have no say in the development of such fears, and once they form, they’re hard to get rid of. But there are therapies aimed, among other things, at decreasing the fear of sleeplessness. I’ll write about them in Monday’s blog.

What fears do you have relating to insomnia?

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

2 Comments

  1. Conditioned insonmia can be insidious. It can gradually creep up over time, along with various coping strategies (e.g., more caffeine during day, alcohol at night, and racing through pre-bed routines like teeth brushing).

    As you pointed out, general fears and anxiety can morph into fear of bed, bedtime and sleeplessness. And a drowsy brain does not regulate rational thought very well.

    Michael

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  2. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for these comments! I agree that certain aspects of insomnia are conditioned, and fear of sleeplessness is one of them. The behaviors you mention (drinking more coffee, etc.) can certainly make the situation worse.

    But not everyone who’s wakeful resorts to coping strategies that make the problem worse. Constitutional factors may also come into play. My reading is that they too can contribute to the development of fears about sleep, and I want to give them their due.

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