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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Fear of Sleep

Q. I don't have nightmares. In fact I've been remembering more of my dreams lately than ever before and most of them have been very pleasant. Every single night, though, I struggle against sleep because I am afraid of the temporary nothingness it brings. I fear sleep. It's starting to affect my daily life since I stay awake until I essentially pass out, but I still have to wake up at the same hour in the morning. Is this something that can be helped?

A. The problem you describe is not especially common, but it does have a name: hypnophobia, or "fear of sleep". One important question is when this problem started for you--if it is fairly recent, I would wonder what factors might have brought it on. If it has been a life-long problem, I wonder what prompts you to seek help now? Could there be some underlying anxiety or depressive disorder that may help explain this problem? Are there other areas in your life in which you fear a loss of control?

All this is really a way of saying that getting some professional help to sort this out is probably a wise idea. I believe that exploring some of your fears about this "temporary nothingness" could be helpful to you. In the mean time, you may want to re-think some of your beliefs about sleep. From the scientific standpoint, it is anything but a state of "temporary nothingness". Sleep is a very active physiological state, in which parts of the brain are in a state of considerable arousal.

For example, in REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep, during which dreams occur, the higher centers of the brain may be trying to "make sense" of random input received from its lower centers. Some authorities believe that dreaming may help consolidate the self, allowing us to solve life-problems and bring new perspectives to our most important concerns. Indeed, the chemist F.A. Kekule is said to have discovered the structure of benzene during a dream!

And, as Martin Reite MD and colleagues note, "Sleep appears to serve a restorative function for the organism...growth hormone and other...hormones, such as prolactin [and] testosterone...have sleep-dependent secretion rhythms." (Evaluation and Management of Sleep Disorders, 1997).

Sleep also seems to stimulate a number of vital immunological functions, allowing us to fight off infections. So, you see, your body is very active during sleep, even though if may feel as if you are losing your sense of self. But, if this problem continues to bother you, I do recommend you discuss it with a mental health professional. And--pleasant dreams!

June 2002

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