Think being a scaredy-cat when the lights go out is only for kids? Not so fast, sleepyhead.
According to new research published in the journal Sleep, nearly half of adults with sleep problems were shown to have a fear of the dark.
Scientists analyzed 93 college students who completed a survey that measured their fear of the dark and their sleeping habits. What they found was surprising. Forty-six percent of the poor sleepers admitted to some fear of the dark, versus only about a quarter of the good sleepers, leading researchers to link insomnia to achluophobia (the technical term for fear of the dark).
To find out more, they also conducted an eye blink latency test where they subjected participants to unexpected noises and measured their blinking to determine how startled people were in both light and dark environments.
While most were startled at first, good sleepers were able to adjust to the noises and get their blinking back to normal. Bad sleepers, on the other hand, had trouble regulating their blinking and were significantly more startled in the dark, suggesting they suffer more anxiety when it’s time for lights out.
“Normally, we blink at a slow, regular pace, but when you’re startled, your response is to blink immediately. Over time, if you’re not afraid, you can inhibit the blink,” explains study author Colleen Carney, Ph.D., director of the Sleep and Depression Laboratory at Ryerson University in Toronto. “So you can use this to measure how phobic someone is, and that’s what we found in this study.”
Fear of darkness. sleep anxiety or both?
Even though the research found that nearly half of the sleep-deprived subjects are scared of the dark, getting them to ‘fess up about their fear isn’t easy. “A lot of people have a stigma of admitting that they’re afraid of the dark,” says Carney. “What they’ll say is, ‘I’m not afraid of the dark—I’m afraid of someone breaking in or someone jumping out at me during the night.’ They attribute their fear to a future disaster, but not to the darkness itself.”
Whether the phobia stems from the dark itself or something related to the dark, it can wreak havoc on our precious shut-eye. But that doesn’t mean you have to sleep with a nightlight forever.
According to Fredric Neuman, M.D., director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center in White Plains, N.Y., and author of “Rising Above Fear: Healing Phobias, Panic and Extreme Anxiety,” it’s a matter of confronting this irrational fear (how many times have you actually found a boogie man in your closet?) and not allowing it to become a habit.
Try these tips to help you nix a fear of the dark and get a better night’s sleep:
1. Reduce any light. If you currently use a nightlight to banish the darkness, start by covering it or moving it to an outlet further away from your bed so there is less light. Do this for a few nights and then progress to turning it off and opening the door or blinds to let a little street light in. “The idea is to get used to sleeping with less and less light, until you are comfortable in complete darkness,” says Dr. Neuman.
2. Talk to your doctor about temporarily using a sleep medication. Neuman says that if you’re having a hard time transitioning from a lighted room to a dark one, taking a sleeping aide for one or two nights could help you get used to snoozing in the dark.
3. Keep a phone nearby. If the phobia is more about a burglar breaking in or someone (or something) hiding under the bed, keep a phone nearby and know that there are people you can call during an emergency. This will help reduce any anxiety.
Getting used to something you’re afraid of is no walk in the park, but if you expose yourself to the fear a little at a time, you can overcome it, according to Neuman.
Now lights off and sweet dreams.
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