Your question: Why do I get scared when I’m about to fall asleep?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. 

Sleep is a key need to maintain your physical and mental health. It is as necessary as eating to be emotionally stable and have energy to cope with the stresses of everyday life. However, many people have problems related to sleep or sleep itself, for various reasons. These problems in turn trigger fear, irritability and intense anxiety that worsen over time if left untreated.

About 60 million people in the world have some kind of sleep problem, many more people are not even diagnosed because they do not go to a specialist. It is important to take care of your sleep because your stability and daily performance depend on it. Among the various sleep problems that exist is the fear or startle that occurs in the person just when they are about to fall asleep.

This is known as Somniphobia, and can only be diagnosed by a professional if it has met certain criteria and a specific period of duration. My recommendation is that you do not self-diagnose, and do not panic if you relate to the content of this post. There are strategies for Somniphobia that you can implement to improve your sleep state and in general, decrease the level of constant fear and anxiety that you feel in your daily life.

What problems can the fear of falling asleep cause you?

Somniphobia is quite specific in its symptoms, and most people can identify them quite clearly. In general, people express that they feel a sudden fear or anxiety when they are about to fall asleep. In itself, Somniphobia is a medical problem that requires professional attention.

However, people may experience a passing fear of falling asleep that does not require a diagnosis of Somniphobia, but rather attention to the specific problem they are experiencing that is causing the sleep problem.

In general, the fear that appears when you are falling asleep, whether Somniphobia or not, is characterized by a series of symptoms that appear just in the period of rest, when you are trying to fall asleep. Among these are:

  • Shortness of breath, dizziness and disorientation.
  • Sensation of fear that increases when the time to go to bed approaches.
  • Sweating and shivering during the night.
  • Fear of dying during sleep.
  • Distressing thoughts related to having nightmares or night terrors.
  • Difficulty or impossibility to fall asleep.
  • Sensation of waking up terrified in the middle of the night or at dawn.
  • Nausea or lack of appetite.

Why is this happening to you?

The causes of fear related to falling asleep or sleep in general are various, and have biological and psychological origins that can be addressed by experts in the field.

Traumatic Experiences

Psychology has linked the fear of falling asleep to traumatic experiences in sleep-related situations. This is related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and generates complications both in falling asleep and waking up. Some traumatic experiences that can cause this problem are: experiencing a home invasion during the night or suffering a car accident at night (1).

Sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis is a temporary loss of muscle control that occurs during the period of wakefulness, before falling asleep, or upon awakening with a start in the night. It is a disturbing and unsettling sensation that leads people to feel that they cannot move or speak, and to perceive images or sounds that are frightening. If you have experienced sleep paralysis before, it is possible that your fear of falling asleep is caused by the worry of experiencing it again.


Everyone experiences nightmares, but for some people they can be so recurrent and intrusive that they become a problem. Chronic nightmares can cause the person to wake up excited, panicked and crying in the middle of their sleep and not return to sleep for the rest of the night. If you have experienced intense nightmares, your fear of falling asleep may be related to having them again, as they can generate a lot of terror, creating imaginary scenarios of violence and deep-seated fears.


You may be experiencing anxiety or intense stress in your daily life that leads you to feel this deep fear related to sleep and sleep. In anxiety, your brain generates distressing thoughts that remain in your mind as a repetitive cycle. These thoughts can carry over to bedtime and prevent you from falling asleep. For example, academic and work responsibilities may make you think “I have too much to do and not enough time”. Then your anxiety will keep that thought intense and repetitive, so that when you are close to falling asleep it will come up, and you will be afraid to fall asleep because of the pending responsibilities.

How to calm your fear of falling asleep?

It is always advisable to see a medical specialist and a therapist if the fear problem associated with sleep worsens over time. There are some strategies you can implement in your daily life to reduce its intensity and frequency.

Decrease caffeine

Coffee, soda and stimulant drinks put your brain in a state of alertness by stimulating your neural connections. Drinking these beverages at times close to your sleep time makes you hypervigilant and anxious close to sleep, making it difficult to fall asleep. In general, both at night and during the day, you should gradually decrease your consumption.

Relaxation before going to sleep

You can practice relaxation and breathing exercises before going to sleep that will help you decrease your state of anxiety and fear. Inhaling and exhaling in six-second periods, while closing your eyes and constructing a mental image of calmness, such as a landscape or a pleasant memory, can help make the moment of going to sleep less frightening.

Exercises before going to sleep

Physical exercise helps you to be tired when you go to bed and to take less time to fall asleep. You can practice physical activity during the day or a sport, which will also help you create new social networks and friendships. But you can also do light stretching exercises before going to bed, to relax your muscles and mind.

In my experience…

Cognitive behavioral therapy is extremely useful for treating fears and anxiety in general. In my experience, working with this therapeutic approach allows people to connect with their emotions, fears and traumas, facing them and taking control of the overwhelming situation they are experiencing. My final recommendation would be to go to a professional who will alleviate any remaining doubts and allow you to find the treatment that is right for you.

Remember that you have the ability to improve your psychological state, even if during moments of anxiety or depression you feel. We can always make small changes that will pay off in the long run. The fact that you are contacting me to seek professional attention in psychological counseling is already a step, and I recognize and applaud you for that. You are already doing something and wanting to change always leads you in the right direction.

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