Anyone who has been in private practice for over 30 years has run into at least one person who is afraid of falling asleep. “Doc, if I fall asleep I’m going to dream and my dreams are crazy. I wont get out of there, I can’t live in that world. I’m afraid I’m going to wake up and it will be the same way it is in my dreams. I can’t live in that world!”
“So how are you coping with it?”
“I drink as much coffee as I can. Sometimes I use amphetamines. I never lie down. When it gets real bad. I put on some headphones and play music as loud as possible.”
“How much sleep you get a night?”
“I don’t know. I don’t feel like I sleep at all. What can I do?”
Dr. Mark Bletcher, a neuro-psychoanalyst wrote a book titled The Dream Frontier in which he coined the term Oneirophobia. The first part is from the ancient Greek ὄνειρος (óneiros, “dream”) combined with phobia and meaning a fear of dreams. He proposed that this fear is suffered due to experiences with a frightening dream or nightmare, or by negative events in the dreams that spill out into waking life. The major characteristic is that all sufferers try to avoid falling asleep for fear of entering a dream state. Dr. Bletcher introduces his new terminology in the following way;
“The first task of the dream interpreter is to develop an interest in dreams and a relative lack of fear of what dreams may tell. This is an achievement that may seem easier than it actually is. We all have areas of our personality that we would rather not know about, and we also know on some level that those dissociated areas of our personality are quite visible in our dreams. So some discomfort with dreams or fear of them, which I call oneirophobia, is normal.” (The Dream Frontier)
Getting back to the patient described the beginning. He goes on to talk about how anxious he feels. “When I try to go to sleep. I feel like I can’t get enough air, I can’t think clearly. I feel nauseous. My mouth is dry and I’m sweating. There is this reoccurring overwhelming fear that I’m becoming mad as I begin to lose control. The closer I get to sleep the more I feel detached from my body, which creates a full blown anxiety attack.”
In every case of dream phobia that I have seen, there is a wide divergence of these symptoms. This is due to the fact that the core of the problem, which is the patterns of thinking, the images, sounds and dialogue that are associated with the nightmares are different in each person. The central theme remains the same. Just as you and I have the presupposition that although we fall into a dream world every night like René Descartes, we all assume the sun will rise in the morning and we will return to a reality that makes sense. Just as René Descartes, however, suffered from bouts of extreme paranoia (so much so that he had to change his residence and postal address frequently in his life) Oneirophobics do everything they can to prevent themselves from falling asleep and returning to that chaotic, at times, psychotic dream state.
This is the first of a series of articles devoted to a fear of dreaming. Next we will look at some of the symptoms that define this disorder. There are causes of those symptoms.and finally, they suggest specific treatments. From here we will then launch into a more detailed examination of how Dr. Blecher coined the term Oneirophobia in his seminal work, The Dream Frontier.