Weekly challenge: Tackle fears while you sleep

I was intrigued by new research suggesting that we can overcome anxieties as we sleep. The small study, published online Sunday in the journal Nature Neuroscience, found that fears could be reduced by repeatedly exposing people to the memory of the trauma during sleep.

How did researchers do it? By exposing subjects in the study to smells associated with their anxieties. Fifteen healthy young adults received mild electric shocks while seeing two faces — basically teaching their brains to fear the two faces — and while also inhaling one of two distinct odors associated with each face. When the volunteers were sleeping, one of the odors was continuously pumped into their room, and when they woke up they had less fear of the face associated with that odor.


The Northwestern University researchers said they believe this is because of a form of “exposure therapy’’ used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety conditions during waking hours. They would like to see larger studies done to verify the results before thinking in terms of real world applications.

While it may take some time before we have any devices helping us conquer common fears of, say, spiders, heights, or crowded places, we can take steps now to overcome a problem many people have: fear of sleeping itself.

Insomnia occurs in 40 percent of Americans at one time or another, and the most common reason is yes, fear, according to this article in WebMD. Worrying about insomnia only worsens it, especially as the minutes tick by on the digital clock by the bed.

Sleep can also become something to dread if you have chronic nightmares or a condition like sleep apnea, which can leave you worried that you will suddenly stop breathing in the middle of the night. Doctors on call may fret that they will be awakened any minute by the hospital; new mothers worry about crying infants.

Overcoming sleep jitters is similar to conquering other anxieties: It centers on finding a new perspective. Rather than obsessing over lost sleep, remind yourself that everyone has bad nights occasionally and that the resulting fatigue and grogginess will be overcome when sleep patterns regulate again.


Those worried about sleep disruptions can calm their nerves by telling themselves to expect it.

Chronic nightmares may require a consultation with a sleep specialist. Psychologists may employ a type of rehearsal therapy that involves coming up with a new version of the nightmare and acting it out while in session. Prescription sleep medications can also help.

Sleep apnea that leads to chronic snoring requires a medical professional to diagnose and properly treat.

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