The hell of somniphobia: ‘On a bad night I get zero to two hours’ sleep’

The fear of falling asleep can have many causes, from trauma to sleep apnea, and the effects are debilitating. But there are effective treatments

When Elizabeth Johnson tries to fall asleep, anxiety often takes over. After going to bed, she starts to relax, but feels as though she is losing control. “Instead of continuing,” she says, “I get a sense of panic, a shot of adrenaline and I’m fully awake again.” She is describing what it is like to have somniphobia – the fear of falling asleep. “Then I have to do the whole process of trying to sleep again, or give up for the night.”

Johnson, 38, from Kansas, has had trouble sleeping and staying asleep since she was seven. It started out as insomnia and a fear of not sleeping, progressing by 12 to a fear of sleep itself. As a young child, she recalls, it was a case of, “When you get to a place where you can mentally fall asleep, you’re scared that it’s not going to happen this time. Or you’re scared that you’re going to have nightmares. And then, later, there was another layer of being afraid to fall asleep: because you’re no longer aware of what’s going on, so you’re not safe.”

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