Adult Insomnia Often Triggered By Fear Of The Dark

By Amir Khan on June 12, 2012 12:21 PM EDT

Sleeping
A new, small study found that more adults are afraid of the dark than people may think (Photo: Flickr.com/Danniel Morris)

Being scared of the dark isn't just for kids. A new, small study found that more adults are afraid of the dark than people may think -- and it may be driving their insomnia, according to new research published at the SLEEP 2012 conference.

"I think the most surprising part of the study is that people told us," Colleen Carney, study author and associate professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto told WebMD.

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Researchers surveyed 93 people and asked them to rate if they were "good sleepers" or "poor sleepers"  and also answered questions about whether they were afraid of the dark. Researchers found that nearly half of the participants who rated themselves as poor sleepers admitted to being afraid of the dark, compared to less than a quarter of good sleepers.

"I don't think everyone with insomnia has this fear or phobia," Carney told the Huffington Post. "But to improve treatment, we really need to understand anything that explains or contributes to sleep disorders."

The researchers also gave the study participants headphones that emitted short bursts of white noise at random intervals to study how easily the participants startled. Poor sleepers were startled much easier, indicating that experienced anticipatory fear in the dark, which can drive their insomnia, researchers said.

"We really thought that we would have to catch fear of the dark by doing the startle paradigm," Carney told the Huffington Post. "We were shocked by how many people acknowledged they were afraid of the dark as adults."

Researchers said before any treatment for the fear of the dark begins, they need to better understand what causes the fear.

"Before we treat anybody, we have to understand what the cause is," Michael Decker, an associate professor at Georgia State University and spokesman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, told the Huffington Post. "With insomnia, you have to understand what the triggers are."

Carney said that new treatment techniques are needed, because traditional ones would not benefit people with insomnia who also have a fear of the dark. Traditionally, insomniacs are advised to leave the room if they're feeling anxious and can't sleep.

"That's how you would reinforce the phobia. If you allow people to leave and to avoid, we're telling them to go into a lit room and wait for the anxiety to go down, fueling the phobia," Carney said. "We might have to modify some of our effective treatments."

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