Your question: Why do I wake up scared?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. Sleep is vital to replenish your energy and have the strength to face the responsibilities of everyday life. However, it becomes a problem when your sleep rhythm is disrupted. Many people don’t know it, but waking up is also part of the sleep cycle. When you wake up you are just connecting with your consciousness, so it is important to wake up slowly and calmly.

If you wake up in an excited, fearful or anxious manner, your sleep rhythm is impaired, and as a consequence you feel that you did not have a restful rest and you are sleepy during the course of the day. In addition, waking up frightened or anxious causes a physical and emotional shock. If it happens during the early morning, it will make it impossible for you to go back to sleep, if it happens when you wake up in the morning, it will leave you with an unpleasant feeling in your body, as well as irritability and sensitivity, the desire to cry and general fear during the day.

Studies have shown that during the transition from sleep to wakefulness, i.e. from sleeping to waking, changes in brain activity are generated. If you experience recurrent anxiety, you are more likely to have an abrupt and excited awakening, even if there is no noise or alarming situation to justify this (1).

You are not alone, this feeling although unpleasant, this experience is common and has a solution. The causes of waking up frightened or anxious are several, among these are:

What causes you to wake up scared?

There are different reasons why you might be waking up feeling scared or anxious, some of these are:

Daily stress

Your brain works in complex ways. Has it ever happened to you that an annoying thought pops into your mind unintentionally? Whether it’s a memory you would like to erase or a worry in your personal life that you are trying to avoid, out of nowhere, it pops into your mind and causes you discomfort. 

This happens because your brain is constantly filtering information and generating thoughts related to things you have to solve. This also happens during the sleep period even if you are not aware of it. Waking up startled may indicate that there are stressful things in your life that you need to balance, and that your brain reminds you through a startle at the moment of awakening.

Substance or alcohol use

The use of alcohol and other addictive substances may be the cause of your fearful and startled awakening. This is because the chemicals in the substances stimulate and deregulate your brain chemicals. Each person may react differently to alcohol and other substances and in your case, it may result in a startled awakening.

Sleep problems

A lack of high quality sleep can cause fear of waking up. If you do not get a good night’s sleep your body and mind begin to take its toll. Insomnia makes you more emotionally reactive, you are constantly alert and this feeling of hypervigilance can manifest itself in a startled and anxious awakening that feels frightening and sudden. If sleep problems persist, it is advisable to see a medical specialist.

Traumatic experiences

If you have experienced traumatic events, violence, family loss, it is first necessary that you seek professional attention to treat your mental health and improve your emotional condition. Startled awakening may be due to traumas that the brain brings to consciousness just at the moment of awakening or while you are sleeping, causing us to wake up with a sense of panic and terror.

What can you do?

Managing the sensation of fearful awakening can be complicated. It is necessary to seek professional help if you feel your situation is worsening, as you may require more advanced diagnosis and help. Some recommended strategies are:

Physical activity

Exercising or practicing a sport allows your body and mind to connect and feel more relaxed during rest periods. By doing so, it helps your sleep period to regularize, thus avoiding the annoying abrupt and anxious awakening.

Keep a diary of your fears

Write down in a journal the things that generate fear and worry in your daily life. It doesn’t matter if they sound absurd or illogical. It is important that you validate your feelings and express them in a space to understand them and then manage them.

Practice relaxation and breathing

There is also a very effective technique called “5, 4, 3, 2, 1”. This consists of using your senses to dissuade emotional discomfort at a specific moment. It is useful when you are experiencing a lot of physical agitation or you feel that you have a lot of unpleasant thoughts, and find it difficult to control your emotions. Wherever you are, you will focus on identifying 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.

Whether you are in your room, in a car or a public place, you can sit and practice this exercise in silence, breathing slowly as you do it as many times as you feel necessary to decrease the anxious symptoms. With time of practice this exercise will become easier, and you will realize how helpful it is to focus on your essential senses when you are overthinking things that make you feel bad.

In my experience…

Waking up scared is an unpleasant experience that can last for the rest of the day, making you feel like you didn’t get a good night’s sleep. This experience is solvable, and by focusing on the source of your restless awakening you can find effective alternatives to help you wake up with peace of mind and generally maintain a healthy sleep cycle.

Remember that you have the ability to improve your psychological state, even if during moments of anxiety or depression you feel hopeless. You 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.

I invite you to seek professional help when you feel that even applying these suggestions, your situation does not improve. Cognitive behavioral therapy is very effective in treating different forms of anxiety and will give you more accurate tools to manage your emotions..

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