Last Updated on February 15, 2024 by Louise Carter
At times, we’re all adversely affected by scary and unpleasant thoughts.
From self-loathing to humiliation from a recent event to a distressing story on the evening news, these disturbing, scary images continue despite our best efforts to block them from our minds.
It’s not just the elements in our thoughts that leave us feeling miserable, but the fact that we can’t inhibit them makes us feel like a captive of our punishing mind.
Unsurprisingly, these fears can keep us up at night. When scared to sleep due to nightmares, being alone, or frightening news, it activates a primitive stress response.
This increases adrenaline levels, elevating our alertness. For some, this may cause trouble falling asleep. For others, it may lead to frequent awakenings, resulting in sleep not being restorative or restful.
Understanding your fears, managing stress and anxiety, and incorporating mindfulness and distraction techniques are effective ways to stop thinking about scary things when trying to sleep.
The Science of Blocking Out Scary Thoughts
Most people believe there isn’t much you can do about troubling thoughts. They believe these thoughts must occur, and there’s no point in trying to suppress them.
The reason that blocking out a thought is problematic is that suppressed thoughts rebound. They sneak up on you when you least expect them, which can be explained by ironic monitoring theory.
Blocking Out White Bears
According to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions,” an account of his journeys in Western Europe, if you try not to think of a polar bear, it’ll continue to come to mind.
However, the research that proved it correct only came to light over a century later via the findings of social psychologist Daniel Wegner, Ph.D.
Wegner’s research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, tested the white bear supposition by asking participants to express their flow of consciousness for 5 minutes while suppressing the thoughts of a white bear.
Participants were asked to ring a bell if a white bear came to their minds. Despite being instructed not to think of a white bear, most volunteers rang the bell more than once per minute.
The second part of this experiment involved asking participants to try to think of the white bear while the rest of the experiment remained the same.
Participants thought of a white bear more frequently than those instructed to think of white bears from the beginning.
Findings showed that blocking out a thought for the first 5 minutes of the test resulted in a more pronounced rebound effect in the volunteers’ minds in the second part of the experiment.
Over the next 10 years, Wegner established his “ironic monitoring” theory, explaining why suppressing unwanted thoughts can be challenging.
The premise is that when you’re trying to block out a thought, while one part of your brain does avoid the unwanted thought, another is actively scavenging for any of these thoughts to inhibit them.
This causes your unwanted thoughts to become more accessible. As soon as you’ve let your guard down, it springs up. The mind is plagued with this unwanted thought, and you can’t stop thinking about it.
How To Block Out Scary Thoughts
For a while, the common notion among psychologists was to allow you to think about white bears (the troubling thought) because the brain wasn’t searching for these thoughts or suppressing them.
Eventually, your thoughts will fade, and you won’t have to worry about them. Experts have discovered that these thoughts can be blocked without a rebounding effect.
It helps to understand that suppressing a thought is challenging, regardless of the thought. However, just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean you must let your mind think about it continuously.
Believing that your mind has a secret plan promotes a rebounding effect. The more meaning and importance you give to the challenging aspect of inhibiting a thought, the more likely you’ll continue being troubled by it.
According to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which explained to participants in advance before blocking out a thought that suppressing any thought is difficult, embracing the fact you don’t have to think removes the rebounding effect.
What To Do if a Scary Thought Occurs
A plan can be as simple as telling yourself that you’ll ignore it if the thought does come. You can also replace an unwelcome thought or emotion with a positive one.
For example, if you have an exam tomorrow and the fear of failing keeps you up at night, remembering when you passed the tests should help overcome negative feelings.
What Happens When You Don’t Block Scary Thoughts?
Any time you feel scared or anxious, your natural human response is to activate your fight-or-flight response, also called the sympathetic nervous system.
Prompting the sympathetic nervous system stimulates the release of adrenaline, noradrenaline, histamine, dopamine, and serotonin, which increase alertness.
When the neurotransmitters reach higher than normal levels, it can be more difficult for the body to switch them off and shut them down so you can sleep.
Even if you can fall asleep despite the rush of these chemicals, you may wake up frequently at night, often facing difficulty falling back asleep.
When scared, the brain increases your alertness and awareness while your body maintains energy and muscle tone. This is evolutionary among humans, allowing them to detect and swiftly escape threats.
Muscle relaxation, lower energy levels, and diminished alertness characterize genuine sleep.
An active sympathetic nervous system may cause hyperarousal during sleep, where the brain observes your environment more cautiously.
This can cause you to experience lighter sleep with an increased awareness of what’s happening around you, allowing you to be easily awoken from sleep.
Some people may also experience nightmares and parasomnias (such as sleepwalking or sleep eating) due to their muscles being active.
How Fear Makes Sleep Less Restorative
Sleeping in a hyperaroused state causes light sleep that can be easily disturbed. Therefore, it won’t be as refreshing as if you weren’t sleeping hyperaroused.
Increased activation in the brain inhibits the brain’s ability to eliminate waste materials that have built up during the day, a natural aspect of restorative sleep.
Therefore, switching off your sympathetic nervous system, especially during REM sleep, is vital for diminishing the fear element from your experiences.
Increased sympathetic nervous system activity due to exposure to fear or anxiety can increase your chances of having continuous nightmares or post-traumatic stress disorder.
This shows that it’s vital to acknowledge fearful stimuli early and seek appropriate treatment to reduce the risk of prolonged hyperarousal and stress disorders.
What Are The Causes of Nightmares?
If bedtime anxiety results from fear of nightmares, you’re not alone. Scientists have found that 75% of all dreams induce negative emotions or may contain undesirable content.
Nightmares are frightening images, emotions, ideas, and sensations that occur uncontrollably during sleep. They can be vivid and realistic, causing fear, grief, sadness, anxiety, depression, guilt, and anger.
These images can be so disturbing and unpleasant that they can force you to awaken. Sometimes, these feelings remain, making it harder to return to sleep.
While scientists have yet to discover what causes bad dreams, some evolutionary psychologists believe that nightmares may have an evolutionary purpose.
According to Antti Revonsuo, nightmares may be a type of “threat simulation” that allowed our ancestors to rehearse being in a dangerous situation so that they were more prepared for real-world perils.
Revonsuo argues that even though nightmares are fictional and disturbing, they may help you deal with a realistic situation more effectively. However, the cause of nightmares is known.
What’s certain is that psychological and emotional factors drive nightmares. In many cases, nightmares are more common during the following conditions:
- Being ill or having a fever.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms from drugs and stimulants.
- Using antidepressants or blood pressure medications.
- Going to bed right after eating due to an increase in metabolism.
- Sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome (RLS).
- During stressful periods, such as financial concerns, a job change, fights with a partner, or pregnancy.
- During traumatic experiences, such as a severe accident, losing a loved one, or witnessing a distressing event.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Nightmares are common among first response workers such as firefighters, paramedics, and police, as well as war veterans.
- While preparing for surgery or recovering from one.
- Having mild head injuries.
What To Do When You’re Scared at Night And Can’t Sleep
One of the most critical approaches to managing fears is recognizing them for what they are. We live in safe conditions now, so most scary thoughts aren’t threats.
It can be difficult to step back and approach this issue more broadly when you’re scared to sleep, but doing so can have a monumental impact.
In addition to putting your fears into perspective, the following can have positive outcomes:
When Wegner asked participants to think of a red Volkswagen instead of a polar bear, he found that providing something else to focus on allowed participants to avoid unwanted thoughts.
Therefore, if you’re wide awake at night and can’t extricate yourself from a cycle of scary thoughts, consider picking an absorbing task and focusing on it instead.
Relaxation techniques are good distractors in this situation. They can grasp your focus effectively, calm the mind, and alleviate muscle tension.
Try shifting your focus from scary thoughts to concentrating on visual imagery and muscle relaxation that will allow sleep to return.
Progressive muscle relaxation is an effective deep relaxation method to control stress and anxiety and reduce insomnia and chronic pain symptoms.
The technique is based on tightening each muscle group, followed by relaxation to release tension. Progressive relaxation can also treat headaches, high blood pressure, digestive issues, and cancer pain. Here’s how you can do it:
- Inhale deeply, contracting one muscle group (such as your thighs) for 5-10 seconds.
- Exhale, releasing the tension in this muscle group.
- Take 10 to 20 seconds to relax. Move to the next muscle group, like your buttocks, tightening them as you inhale. Release again while exhaling.
- As you release muscle tension, pay attention to the changes you feel as you relax that muscle group. Using imagery can be beneficial while releasing tension. For example, imagine stressful feelings in that region as a ball of glowing energy that exits the body as you release that muscle group.
- Work up your body, gradually tightening and relaxing each muscle group.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a practical approach to learning about your body and understanding the signals it is giving you.
With some practice, you’ll be able to accurately recognize and reduce the signs of emotional and physical stress in your body, helping you sleep more soundly through the night.
Mindfulness involves practicing being present and unplugging from experiences, emotions, and judgment.
This can help you see fears in their true essence and understand whether you should be fearful or whether your fears aren’t reasonable and realistic.
Most people find it easier to practice mindfulness meditation by concentrating on one object, thought, or sensation, such as a candle, or understanding your fear.
Meditate in a peaceful, quiet area wearing comfortable, non-restrictive clothing. Here’s how:
- Sit comfortably on the bed, a cushion, or a folded blanket. Adjust your position to allow the spine to be erect and your head, neck, and spine to be straight.
- Close your eyes and start regulating your breathing. Inhale deeply for a count of 5 and exhale for 5. Breathe again and focus on how the air feels as it travels in and out of your nose. If you lose focus, bring your awareness back to breathing as you inhale and exhale.
- Avoid forcing yourself to focus on reducing physical and emotional strain. Acknowledge your mind as it wanders and return your awareness to your breath.
- Returning your thoughts to the present moment will take patience, but some practice can benefit you. Avoid passing any judgment on yourself if your thoughts wander.
- Bring awareness to the object, thought, or sensation you want to focus on. You can continue focusing on your breath or shift your focus to a visual object near you. Gaze softly if it’s an object. If it’s a thought, focus on it without judgment, blame, or guilt.
- Avoid fighting your thoughts. When your thoughts wander, guide them back to your object of focus. Acknowledge wandering thoughts and let them pass while being aware of your object of focus.
- Perform this exercise for at least 10 minutes before sleep, gradually increasing the length of your sessions to 20 minutes or longer.
Practicing mindfulness can play a role in reducing hyperarousal and symptoms of troubled sleep.
In addition to the above exercise, you may find guided mindfulness meditation apps and videos to strengthen your meditation practice.
Delaying Your Thought
Your mind likes to anticipate things rather than react to them.
Scientists have found that asking individuals to set aside 30 minutes for worrying allows them to avoid focusing on their troubling thoughts for the rest of their day.
If a troubling or scary thought keeps you up at night, having a plan to address it later can be beneficial.
For example, the next time you encounter an unwanted thought, tell yourself you won’t think about it until next Tuesday.
Avoid Stimulants Before Bed
Caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol can significantly impact your thoughts before sleep.
Not only are they linked to increased stress and anxiety when taken in higher amounts, but they also last in your system for hours, causing you to wake up frequently during sleep.
If you have trouble falling asleep due to scary thoughts, cut back on coffee, alcohol, or smoking, as they’re notorious for causing poor quality sleep and emotional disorders in the future.
If you continue to have trouble sleeping, even after trying the above strategies, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. A doctor may refer you to a sleep physician or a psychologist.
Some treatments used by health professionals include:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT-I)
Sometimes, even after a person addresses their fear, their sleep issues persist due to altered behavior and thinking around sleep. This can be managed using cognitive behavioral therapy.
Imagery Rehearsal Treatment
Imagery rehearsal treatment is a cognitive therapy where individuals can create alternatives for themselves that are less troubling than their dreams.
Researchers have found that over 70% of people, including patients with insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder, claim this treatment is beneficial.
A doctor may prescribe medications to reduce your sympathetic nervous system response.
Alpha-blockers or beta-blockers can help reduce the occurrence of nightmares and disturbed sleep, which are common aspects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Before sleep, you can block out negative thoughts if you feel scared, anxious, or stressed.
If this doesn’t work, options like meditation, progressive relaxation, diet control, and medical treatment are available.