Laying Fear of Sleeplessness to Rest

Once fear of sleeplessness moves into your bedroom, it can feel like a permanent feature of the night, making insomnia worse. But does it have to be this way?

Therapy with a sleep specialist, or measures you can take on your own with instruction from a book or the web, can help set fears to rest.

night-demonOnce fear of sleeplessness moves into your bedroom, it can feel like a permanent feature of the night, making insomnia worse. But does it have to be this way? Therapy with a sleep specialist, or measures you can take on your own with instruction from a book or the web, can help set fears to rest.

Cognitive Restructuring

Many insomnia sufferers have sleep-related attitudes that interfere with sleep. Beliefs like these—“My ability to sleep is out of my control,” or “When I sleep badly I can’t function the next day.”—can contribute to the development of anxiety about sleep.

“Cognitive restructuring” may help. It’s a part of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for insomnia. As part of this program, a therapist tries to convince you that your catastrophic thinking is distorted, and persuade you to adopt a more realistic mindset. The claim is that changes in attitude—“I can control my sleep by adopting a better sleep schedule,” and “If I sleep badly one night, I’ll sleep better the next.”—can help to decrease sleep-related fears and improve sleep.

Sleep Restriction Therapy

Cognitive restructuring may be useful for some insomniacs, but I had better luck with sleep restriction, a therapy I blogged about on June 27 and July 1. The main goal of sleep restriction, another part of CBT, is to help insomniacs fall asleep more quickly and sleep through the night.

Sleep restriction helped me do just that. But it had another benefit as well: it helped me get rid of my fear of sleeplessness to a large extent. How? By functioning as an exposure therapy.

What Is Exposure Therapy?

Say you have a spider phobia. During exposure therapy, you might start by looking at a picture of a spider and eventually progress to sitting near a real spider outdoors. The goal would be to reduce your physiological response to spiders—the pounding heart, the urge to flee—and get more comfortable in places where spiders are likely to be.

Sleep restriction, which brought me face to face with my fear of sleeplessness, accomplished a similar thing. The first few nights were scary. It took every bit of resolve I had to stick to the program when my anxiety level was sky high.

But gradually things changed. As the nights went by, I found myself sleepier and sleepier at bedtime and began falling asleep within minutes of lying down. With improved sleep, I was less fatigued and my thoughts were clearer during the day. As bedtime approached, I began to expect that I would sleep. Within a few weeks, my fear of sleeplessness had all but faded away: an incredible boon for someone who lived with this fear off and on for years.

Occasionally my fear of sleeplessness will return in times of stress. When it does, it feels much more manageable. It’s not the demon it used to be.

My advice? If fear of sleeplessness is part of your problem, cognitive and behavioral therapies are worth checking out.

Do these therapies sound like they might help you?

Author: 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 thoughts on “Laying Fear of Sleeplessness to Rest”

  1. Hi . Thank you for all the positive info/advice. I’m starting another bout of sleep restriction. This relapse occurred after a couple of completely sleepless nights (from which I could find no reason)- which brings back that terror again that I might relive those dreadful insomnia years. My experiences with insomnia in the past took me to the darkest pits of despair& feel i have never gotten over the fear of not sleeping (or the fear of the fear that’s keeping me awake).I feel also its a bit like PTSD , in that a bad night is a reminder of those times . When I do sleep restriction now, u know that it won’t be pleasant, but I latch on to your science – that I am reprogramming my thought patterns & the ONLY thought I need to have is to Follow the programme! Another reason I need to do sleep restriction again, is that I was relying on that sleepy feeling a glass of wine or two brings to reassure me sleep would come. …hope this makes sense!


    1. Hi Sharon,

      Of course you’re making sense! The truth is that many people who benefit from sleep restriction therapy find themselves slipping backwards occasionally. When it happens, you simply tighten up your sleep window and wait for your sleep system to right itself again. And it will.

      I don’t know if you read my book (you DID mention the science!) but especially during the first year after I went through SRT, I’d find my sleep system going off track and feel the old panic coming back. These conditioned fears die hard. It simply takes time to establish the new connections in your brain that will eventually supersede the old connections, allowing you to experience the feeling of not sleeping without also experiencing panic at the same time.

      I was persistent in returning to sleep restriction at times when I felt myself slipping. The persistence paid off. Gradually over the years it’s taken less and less time for regular sleep to return. And I find myself thinking sometimes how remarkable it is that I can now hear the midnight train whistle blow, realize I don’t feel sleepy in the least, and not freak out about it. I simply return to reading my book and most of the time sleep eventually comes.

      Good luck in sticking with the program and returning to better sleep. It will get easier as time goes by.


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