Sleep Dread aka. Fear Of Sleep – We Asked 50 Experts About It

by sleep disorders, sleep wellness

Sleep dread is real and nothing to be shrugged of. Over the past few years, we interviewed over 50 sleep therapists and one of the questions was always regarding sleep dread – its causes, whether it’s a phobia or not, the forms it can take…

Finally, we asked what you can do if you can relate to what you’ll read below.

During the 7, 8 or 9 hours of sleep, our brain processes information gathered during the day and helps our body heal and re-energize.

Disturbance of this process night after night, leads to chronic discomfort, panic attacks, sleep disorders and it can develop into a sleep phobia known as “sleep dread.”

young woman in sleep dread

What’s causing sleep dread?

Sleep dread can be caused by number of reasons, including come conditions like PTSD, depression, anxiety disorders or fear of sleep paralysis –  (if you already experienced episodes).

Most commonly, however, it’s a side effect of insomnia or irrational and exaggerated fear.

The fight-or-flight trigger of sleep dread

When we are scared, our body’s natural reaction is to activate the “flight or fight” mode. This is normal and necessary human reaction, and when it’s reasonable we can benefit from it.

But our sleep is time when we need to go completely opposite from it. Having this mode on when you need to rest is counterproductive. And that’s an understatement. When your mind is telling that you need to be prepared to run from a threat, you can’t rest.

brown teddy bear toy in bed

What happens

If you do manage to fall asleep at some point, the brain will stay highly alert the whole time, lowring the quality of sleep you get. In most cases, it’b by not allowing you to get enough deep sleep, which is a crucial sleep phase.

Because of the hyper arousal of your nervous system, you will feel more aware of your surroundings, and will probably have nightmares. In this case it’s common to wake up few times during the night, which breaks sleep cycle

So, don’t be surprised when you get up in the morning feeling like you worked the graveyard shift.

When mornings feel everything but good

After sleeping in this state you wake up feeling less rested and refreshed. The brain not only didn’t get the chance to store all the data from previous day, but was infused with new information throughout the night.

This leaves you feeling tired, forgetful, and with weakened state of awareness, prone to injuries and accidents during the day. It’s easier to break a glass or cut yourself feeling this way, not to mention more serious stuff.

Bad quality of sleep is often a main reason for the poor performance at job or school, and it also affects our emotional state.

In the long term, disturbance of sleep can play a significant role in causing the variety of health problems, from mood disorders to heart diseases and stroke.

Your first steps to facing the feal of sleep head-on

Think about the quality of your life. If you are often isolated and your social life is close to non-existing, this can make you more subjective to influence of bad news.

Share it…it’s nothing to be ashamed of

You’d be surprised by how many people have similar problems and are also afraid to talk about it.

We are social beings; we need to be in touch with each others and share our thoughts and experiences. It takes some of the burden off.

Besides, you never know if that somebody has a good piece of advice…whether it’s first-hand or I know-a-guy-who-knows-a-guy-type of advice. There’s undeniable proof it can help.

If you watch TV and read newspapers, you are probably up to date with all sorts of bad and disturbing news out there. It’s hard to avoid them, to be honest. The world is definitely not a rosy place these days.

woman whispering to friend about her sleep dread illustration
brain image concept

This is not something that can be tossed aside. Remember, our brain process information, and the source of information is everywhere. If you think that doesn’t have any effect on you, think again.

Beside that, try to remember all of the movies and TV shows with violent and aggressive scenes in them. Personally, I’ve lost count. And if you are highly sensitive person, or have a wild imagination that likes to visit dark places, even worse. It can take you further and the dread can turn into fear of dying in sleep.

So, even if you’re not suffering from anxiety, or any other mental disorder per se, if you are scared to fall asleep for no real reason, that’s a problem that needs to be taken care of.

The fear of sleeping alone

If you are scared of sleeping because you have bad dreams, that’s one thing, but in most cases, sleep dread gets triggered when sleeping alone.

It’s proven that women are battling this problem more often than man. They usually don’t have trouble sleeping when their family members or partner are in the house.

My friend once told me that she feels safer sleeping when “man is in the house”, and I am talking here about the girl that trained martial arts for years.

fear of darkness concept

This irrational fear comes from the idea that we might get attacked during the night, and staying awake will keep us safe. When there are no men to protect us, we must rely on ourselves. This feeling of vulnerability makes our primal fears alive.

We can talk about the century’s old roll of women being a “weaker sex” embedded in our minds, but it’s not just that.

Here, we can also thank a huge number of movies with highly aggressive scenes that include women getting attacked in the middle of the night in their beds. We are not accusing anyone, this is a simple fact.

woman alone in bed restless

How to threat sleep dread and stop it from happening again

Bear in mind that even if you get rid of your fear for a night, or week, the feeling itself casts a very long shadow that can affect you for months or even years, and can make sleep dread episodes reoccur at any time.

This problem needs to be approached directly and systematically. You really need to work on this, by yourself or with doctor’s help.

It takes time, but it’s worth it.

concept image fear of sleep

Let’s start simple…baby steps

Minimize the flow of violent images and stories that comes to your mind. If you watch a lot of horror movies or crime shows, stop doing that, or at least don’t watch them right before you go to bed.

You don’t need to have a sleep phobia to feel frightened to fall asleep after watching some of those, so think logically. Good idea is to move the TV from your bedroom, if you have one there. If you really can’t stop watching movies at night, switch to something relaxing and funny.

Restrain yourself from short-term solutions, like sleeping with your TV on, or lights on, or asking your friend to stay the night. It may help you once, but not in the long run. You can’t erase the fear this way, it will keep coming back.

man holding newspapers with anxiety

Tired, calm, self-aware…

calm woman illustration

Be tired

If you don’t exercise, it’s something you really need to consider. Not just because of obvious health benefits, but as they say “make your body tired and the brain will follow”.

When we exercise, our bodies release serotonin and dopamine, hormones that are responsible for feeling of happiness. With tired body and happy mind it’s a lot easier to hit the bed. It doesn’t have to be strenous, if you’re trying to address sleep dread, there are reccomended relaxation exercises.

Sooth the racing brain

Meditation, positive affirmations and mindfulness have a strong positive influence on our mind. If you think that’s a bit silly, let’s talk about how silly it is to deprive yourself from sleep due to irrational thoughts.

Recognize the triggers and activate your defence mechanisms

Fight the bad thoughts with positive ones. You already know that the sleep dread is caused by fears that are not justified, that negative state of mind didn’t come from nowhere. Change the way you talk to yourself, and you will change the way you see the world.

Practicing yoga, keeping a journal in which you can write down things you are grateful for every day, or just saying positive phrases few times a day like “I am safe in my home”, can be really helpful.

Massage is also a proven relaxant – especially when it involves soothing essential oil mixtures  specifically designed to adress sleep problems like apnea or anxiety.

Establish a routine

You should also work on your bedtime routine. Your sleep time should be sacred, literally.

In general, your bedroom should be dark, well aired and peaceful, so that vibe can be transferred to you. Make your bedroom as cozy as possible, and avoid using computer or telephone before going to bed.

Take a bath, or read a nice, relaxing book, or play some of your favorite music. There is even music for sleeping; tracks with calming sounds that help you fall asleep. If you like to sleep with radio on, you should do it, but because you are enjoying it, not because you are terrified of sleeping in silent room.

A more serious approach to sleep dread

In cases of anxiety disorders that affect sleeping and cause insomnia, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has proven to have great results. In sessions with the therapist the focus is on indentifying the fear and getting over it.

Your doctor will lead you to confront the actual cause of the problem and together you will work on establishing a healthy sleeping routine. The key thing is to stick to the therapy even if it’s hard to handle in the beginning.

In some cases, medications like alpha-blockers are prescribed to keep the sympathetic nervous system under control.

if the problem is more anxiety-related, a less agressive approach might work, like getting a weighted blanket – you can see our top biggest and heaviest picks of sensory blankets here.

We believe that consulting with your doctor is the way to go, and that with a right treatment you can overcome sleep dread.

This is something it should be discussed with psychologist, especially if you are already battling some type of mental disorder. It can be solved and there is no need to panic.

If the situation is less serious, natural ways we talked about are proven to be effective (even doctors agree on this), and you should try at least one of them.

side height measuring of aerobed opticomfort

One night at a time…

We understand how troubling sleep dread can be, and that’s why we worked very carefully on this guide. We hope you will find it useful in solving the problem.

If you are experiencing the fear of sleep, or have a story related to it, please share it with us in the section below.

Any experience helps make this guide better for future readers…share away…

The Sleep Studies team


  • Bob Ozment

    Bob has been testing and writing about all things sleep (and especially blankets, air mattresses and folding beds), for 8+ years now. before that, he worked as a Quality Assurance Manager with one of the bigger names in the sleep industry. He holds a masters degree Statistics, Actuarial & Data Sciences from the central Michigan University at Mount Pleasant. He's one of the people who designs our producing testing and statistical models. He’s a stomach sleeper, but nobody’s perfect.