‘Sleepless Beauty’ Asked:
I have suffered from fear at night my whole life. I love sleeping, but falling asleep is the worst part for me. I’m always nervous that there is someone in my house, or will break in when I am sleeping. This has never actually happened to me in my 24 years of living, but it’s been an absolute fear since I can remember (about 6 years old). I’ve told myself for years that I’ll be fine when I’m an adult… well I’m married now and still haven’t changed one bit. What are some ways I can start getting over this? I don’t want to be a mother who is more scared at night then her children. And I feel like if I keep going the way that I am… then that will actually happen. My fear starts off as just a worry in the back of my head and then it turns into anxiety. To the point where I can’t sleep with my back to the door. Thanks for all your help. This podcast has been a huge blessing for me.
Dr. Zoe Answered:
It can seem like your fears come from nowhere, but they never really do. You mentioned that you have had this fear since about 6 years old. Something happened to create this fear. It may have been a movie you watched, a story that was told to you, or a traumatic event that happened before you even developed your iconic memory. Maybe the only thing that happened is that your anxiety needed a place to land and this one seemed like an excellent runway… but there is a reason.
You may be surprised to know that you are describing symptoms consistent with a specific phobia called Nyctophobia, which is a fear of the dark (night time). This is an advice column, so please note that I am not diagnosing you! You need to seek treatment from a licensed professional for that.
The good news is that simple phobias are rather easy to treat and what you are describing is not severe.
19 million people in the U.S. have a phobia, so you are not alone! Most people can easily avoid their phobia and that is where it gets tricky for you. You can’t exactly avoid night time, so you’ve got to get this under control.
Children whose parents have phobias are much more likely to develop a phobia themselves, so parents can actually pass down their phobias to their children. For that reason, among others, I am so glad that you are reaching out now to prevent this cycle.
Phobias are irrational fear reactions—which means that you are scared of something that is not actually generally or immediately dangerous. Even though you know your fear is irrational, you can’t control the fear reaction by simply telling yourself everything is going to be alright or that there is nothing to be afraid of.
The fear of the dark is a natural human fear of the unknown that develops between the ages of 3 and 6. This fear has protected us for centuries from things like venturing into dark caves that could have predators hiding in them. Most people develop out of this fear, but some get stuck, as you have.
Researchers have found that phobias are often linked to the amygdala, which lies behind the pituitary gland in the brain. The amygdala triggers the release of the “fight-or-flight” hormone, which causes your body to get ready for danger. This adrenaline rush is what keeps you on alert, scared, and disrupts your sleep at night.
You don’t need to figure out what your trigger is to get help. You just need to learn to pair your trigger with a different association, which will eventually reduce your “fight-or-flight” response. A behavioral therapist can help you do this.
You do not have to continue to suffer, please reach out to a behavioral therapist who is trained in treating specific phobias. You’ve got this! It just takes a little grit and grace!
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