Meet Toby, our new dog. No, he doesn’t have a sleep problem. But Toby has a problem that seriously affects the quality of his and our lives: he’s terrified of dogs. We adopted him from a rescue shelter, unaware that the mere sight of a 5-pound Chihuahua would cause Toby to leap and bark as though he feared for his life.
Toby’s fear of dogs reminds me of my own fear of sleeplessness, which I struggled with for decades. The problem seemed insurmountable . . . until I went through insomnia treatment and found a way out. If sleep anxiety is your problem too, read on.
Wondering Where the Fear Came From
How our muscular, 47-pound Labrador Retriever mix came to fear even dogs one-eighth his size is something we’ll never know. The shelter had little information about Toby other than that he may have spent some time on a farm.
We do speculate about his past. His fear of dogs might be a symptom of post-traumatic stress. Maybe he was once mauled by a pack of wild dogs (he has no visible marks of mistreatment). Or maybe he simply was not exposed to other dogs during that critical socialization period during puppyhood (the little bit of plaque on his teeth suggests he may now be approaching two years of age).
Regardless of what led to Toby’s fear of dogs, it’s now well entrenched. Yet our trainer says that with proper training we’ll be able to change Toby’s response to and behavior toward dogs.
How My Fear of Sleeplessness Developed
I know more about how my fear of sleeplessness developed (although, memory being as unreliable as it is, here, too, there’s speculation). I think my sleep anxiety must have started with the recognition that I was awake when others in the house/neighborhood/dorm were sleeping, that others seemed to fall asleep more easily and quickly than I did. In fact it was often when I felt exhausted and most craved sleep that I found myself tossing and turning in bed, awake till well after midnight even as a teenager (way before the advent of smart phones!).
Unpleasant symptoms followed those short nights: moodiness and unease during the daytime; at night, tension in the stomach, body warmth, and a racing feeling emanating from my chest down through my arms and legs. It’s no wonder I started worrying about sleeplessness at night: who likes those symptoms, anyway?
Sleep Onset Insomnia and Blaming Myself
Toby can’t see how useless and self-defeating his fear reaction toward dogs is or berate himself for his behavior.
But over the years my anxiety about sleep caused me to feel plenty of anger and disgust with myself. It was bad enough that I had sleep onset insomnia and could never predict when I’d finally fall asleep. But I knew the sensations accompanying my anxiety — the racing mind, the warmth, the tingling arms and legs — were only going to delay sleep further, yet I couldn’t stop myself from feeling them or worrying about how wasted I’d feel the next day.
I tried everything I knew of to solve the problem: relaxation exercises, yoga, tapes featuring sounds of nature, music purported to coax listeners into deep sleep. Those things might work for a week or two but soon I was back to the same old obsessive thinking about sleep. That I was unable to get a grip on the problem, unable to stop myself from prolonging my own wakefulness made me feel like I was engaging in willful self-sabotage. Just how ridiculous was I for doing that?
My fear of sleeplessness felt as entrenched as Toby’s fear of dogs. And it kept me feeling like an adolescent for many, many years. Why couldn’t I grow up and out of this phase and fall asleep like everyone else?
Changing Toby’s Behavior
Apparently changing dogs’ behavior can be accomplished through classical conditioning. Toby is very motivated by food, so we’re doing clicker training with him. Every time he looks at a dog, we click and give him a treat, click and treat, click and treat.
Eventually, the trainer says, Toby will come to associate seeing dogs with the pleasurable experience of eating something tasty rather than the disagreeable thing he experienced before. It’s slow going, but we’re starting to see some changes and we’re only two months into the training.
Overcoming Sleep Anxiety
I went for decades believing I could never turn my fear of sleeplessness around. But it finally happened, and I attribute the change mostly to sleep restriction therapy, an insomnia treatment offered as part of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia.
You might think, since my problem involved anxious thinking about sleep, that cognitive therapy would be the way to go. In fact, as I underwent insomnia treatment, I was guided through “cognitive restructuring,” a cognitive approach to extinguishing negative thoughts and feelings about sleep through careful examination and reappraisal. Were my fears about sleeplessness realistic or distorted? If distortion was occurring, what might be an alternative, more balanced way of looking at the situation?
Apparently, this approach to decreasing sleep anxiety works for some people with insomnia. It did nothing for me. My fear of sleeplessness felt far too deeply rooted to be eradicated by simply reasoning with myself.
A Behavioral Approach to Fear Extinction
What it took to finally root out my fear was a behavioral approach similar to the one we’re using with Toby. By restricting my time in bed, sleep restriction therapy created the sleep pressure my brain apparently needed to fall asleep a lot more quickly. I started falling asleep pretty much on cue — a fabulous development! And when I began to see I could count on falling asleep with regularity, my fear of sleeplessness started to fade away.
The process took time, though, just as the process with Toby is going to take time. There were nights when the old anxieties returned to hijack my sleep. But with time the nights when fear ambushed me on the way to the bedroom were fewer and fewer.
Now my fear of sleeplessness is a thing of the past. With persistence and the right kind of insomnia treatment, yours can be made to disappear, too.
If you’ve struggled with sleep anxiety, what have you tried to decrease your anxiety, and has it worked?