Insomnia? You Could Be Afraid Of The Dark

First Posted: Jun 11, 2012 11:00 AM EDT

Insomniacs may not be able to fall asleep due to a fear of the dark, a new study shows.

"People often think it's a juvenile fear, and adults don't usually want to admit that they're even afraid of the dark," said study researcher Colleen Carney, a sleep psychologist at Ryerson University in Toronto. "But some people with insomnia sleep with the light and TV on."

The findings are based off 93 undergraduate students. The students had to identify whether or not they were good sleepers or poor sleepers. Turns out that 46 percent of the poor sleepers were afraid of the dark, while only 26 percent of the good sleepers were afraid of the dark.

The study could open up new avenues for treating insomnia.

"We can treat this fear," Carney said. "We can get people accustomed to the dark so they won't have that added anxiety that contributes to their insomnia."

The researchers studied the subjects while they were sleeping by giving them headphones and blasting short bursts of white noise into the headphones. By observing how often the participants blinked, the researchers were able to determine the level of anxiety the person was feeling.

When the lights were on, both good and poor sleepers responded similarily. But when the lights went off, the poor sleepers became increasingly agitated as the night went on, while the good sleepers seemed to get more comfortable. 

"Everyone will get startled in the dark," Carney explained. "That's common, because we're not night creatures." But good sleepers don't startle as much, she said. "They get used to the sound over time and are startled less and less."

Around 60 million people in the United States experience insomnia every year, and insomnia can be an indicator of other health issues such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome.

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