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Boyfriend's Sleeping Phobia

My boyfriend is 17 years old, and has a terrible phobia of sleeping. Even before we were together, he's had a fear of what the afterlife was like, and has convinced himself that it's just darkness; never being able to see me or his family & friends again, no hearing, no seeing, just complete non-awareness and darkness, and it completely terrifies him. A little more than a few months ago, this fear has scared him so much to that fact that he relates sleeping to what dying will be like (without the dreaming part). He thinks that when he sleeps and doesn't dream, he's basically getting a taste for what his afterlife will be like. It's gotten to the point where he'll purposefully stay up HOURS, busying himself with everything, and not sleeping until he basically passes out. I've tried talking to him, he goes to a therapist, and his parents don't understand it. He's been a straight-A student, but now he's missing school work and falls asleep uncontrollably during the day. He's terrified when he tries to sleep, and I don't know what to do. Nothing his therapist nor I am telling him is working. I've tried holding him while he sleeps, reassuring him that no one 100% knows for sure what the afterlife is like, etc. I really don't want to see him suffer like this forever...

Does anyone have any advice on what we should do about this?
3 Responses
Avatar universal
He has put this idea in his head but can't prove any of it, so likely a therapist will be the best option. Since that hasn't worked, then he could try another one to see if he can relate to that person better.
Or maybe see someone like a preacher who has his own views of afterlife. Preachers like to talk about that kind of thing and it won't cost money.
I don't think he would really enjoy discussing it with a preacher, but I will definitely suggest a new therapist. Thank you very much.
Avatar universal
Most people who are thoughtful, and many many people are not, can become obsessed with these kinds of thoughts.  This one is fairly common.  I even had it at a couple times in my life.  If you think enough about life, there's an awful lot in it that can be scary.  It can also be motivation for doing things.  Most people, however, don't obsess to this level.  His anxiety is moving toward OCD, and he's at an age near when this type of problem emerges.  I don't know what kind of therapist he's seeing -- he needs one who specializes in treating anxiety -- most don't.  Now, this could just be a phase in a young person's life that will pass.  It could end up being fuel for a creative life.  It could end up blocking him at every turn.  Therapy requires him to work hard and a therapist who gives work to do -- just chatting doesn't necessarily help.  If one therapist doesn't work, try another -- it's more of an art form anyway.  As for you, there's not an iota of anything you can do to help him.  Right now, you're enabling him most likely more than anything else because he's very young.  The best thing you can do is treat him the same as always because you can't fix him, you don't have the tools or expertise and you're too close, but you can be there for him and you can keep pushing him to see he's thinking too much about this question that has no known answer -- none of us knows what it's going to be like after death.  Religious people can offer him their blind faith, but if it isn't his blind faith, it won't help, but there's a reason so many have blind faith -- being blind to these questions takes them off the table.  That's a comfort to many, but it does leave a lot of problems unresolved century after century.  
Thank you so much. I'll definitely try what you've suggested. I greatly appreciate your response.
I don't know about the validity of that blind faith part, because as I said before they think about this all the time and see all types who disagree with them  - so it is a generalized statement to just assume you know what will be the result of a conversation that hasn't happened.
fwiw, the boyfriend is into thinking about the afterlife, too, so sometimes they have enough in common to enjoy talking with someone else who does have an opinion on it. It can't be too easy for the boyfriend to keep telling others about something they aren't interested in.
Not sure your point, Anxious.  By the way, a preacher is someone who preaches -- I assume you meant to say a spiritual advisor.  But all religions involve blind faith in that we can't prove anything any religion claims is true -- it's not a fact we can test.  But you don't have to be religious to wonder about what happens after death -- most of us do think about this at some point in our lives.  It's a common thought.  But it doesn't drive us nuts unless we're already thinking obsessively.
I merely provided an optional listener for someone who is obsessed.
20244670 tn?1493363438
This is really long but I figure you want some serious help here and thus won't mind that I have had to break this into several posts because of it's length. I'm new here so will know from now on to keep my posts much shorter; but I'm a writer and researcher in health psychology and also have a long history of horrendous anxiety, so...

I have quite a lot of potentially useful stuff to say on this subject, covering numerous things such as the five stages of sleep (only one of which is considered proper dream sleep - the weird state we go through when falling asleep, which is stage one, is the hypnogoigic state and is when we often experience very odd dream-like experiences; and everyone has had that senseation of falling and snapping back to fully awake with a sense of alarm; that's known as a hypnic or hypnogigic jerk). I'll say a bit about different types of therapy and what might be most appropriate; and I'll offer some suggestions about how you might be able to help. But it's almost 5am here in the UK and I need to sleep myself, so I'll ask some questions which will enable me to give more directed and thus hopefully more useful answer:

So, to the best of your knowledge:

1, What, if any, are your boyfriend's religious or spiritual beliefs? It will really help to give specifics about denomination, how religious are/were his parents; e.g., was he raised in a strict religious environment; was there fear and/or punishment involved etc etc.

AND CRUCIALLY: is his belief that the afterlife is total non-existent oblivion or is it being trapped, perhaps able to observe but unable to communicate? This is the most important point to clarify because if it is the former it is straight existential terror and might be fairly straight forward to resolve - though it could take some time it need not necessarily be complicated.

2, because it sounds like there could be separation anxiety and abandonment issues involved, is there anything notable in his background such as parents being divorced, having a sibling who was really ill when he was very young  and thus he felt  ignored whilst his parents were at the hospital all the time for two years?

3, When did this actually begin; did anything specific happen to trigger it; does he have a history of sleep disturbance? is it constant or does he have better and worse days? Can he sleep better in the day?

4, is he taking any medication or was he in the six months or so prior to this beginning? Has he been using weed or anything else - including alcohol. I'll totally understand if it is a yes to the second part but you prefer not to answer given the nature of this medium and the fact that everything we say and do online is monitored.

5, has he been in any accidents or experienced any other trauma prior to this starting; not just physical trauma but being locked in a trunk by school bullies, for example?

6, is he claustrophobic; have any other phobias or major fears that could be relevant?

7, what is he studying? I don't know how the US high school system works, so for comparison, here in the UK you can leave school at 16 but if you want to go to university you stay on and take A.Levels in 3 or sometimes for subjects relevant to what you want to study at uni -  so, for example, if you wanted to study mechanical engineering you would do A.Levels in maths, physics, and possibly chemistry, materials science, or other relevant subjects.

8, has he been denied his own wishes in any major way prior to this - e..g., maybe he wanted to leave school and train as a chef but his parents refused to let him?

9,  What are you studying? And do you have any inclination towards a career in medicine, psychology or therapy? I ask because one of the things i'm going to suggest you can do to help him is educate yourself on a few areas of both psychology and physiology - e.g. attachment theory and the physiology of  sleep.

10, How long  has he been seeing his therapist, and what type of therapist is he or she  - there are three main schools of therapy: 1, psychodynamic,  2, humanistic/person-centred (they're the same thing), 3, cognitive behavioural  (CBT). Each approach has dozens of "flavours". Then there is integrative therapy which is where typically two but sometimes more approaches are combined, and increasingly common nowadays is eclectic therapy, which is where the therapist is typically schooled in one of the main approaches (psychodynamic  or humanistic - because CBT is a different approach altogether; it takes at least three years to train in one of the first two, but a CBT practitioner can train in one specific technique in a few months - increasingly common with quit smoking therapists here in the UK. An important difference is that a CBT therapist doesn't have to undergo their own therapy because CBT is more of a teaching process than an actual therapy in the truest sense). So eclectic therapists typically train in one of the two major approaches then train to work with several other "flavours".

Then there are counselors, and it starts to get tricky there; psychiatrists, and I don't know about the US system but here they are medical doctors who undertake six extra years of specialist training after their initial seven years, but of the six sub-specialties within the field only psychotherapeutic psychotherapists fulfill the Hollywood stereotype of practising talking therapies, the rest usually just dish out drugs like candy because they have a very strong bias towards the medical model of mental illness so they tend to take the approach of "if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail"; though not yet qualified due to my own health problems, in addition to my psychology degree, I worked in mental health for four years until 2015, am working on a book about counseling and psychotherapy, and have a special research interest in medical communication and in biases within the medical profession, and whilst there are some good ones, for the most part I am not a fan of psychiatry because as a profession psychiatrists are really good at labeling problems and throwing drugs at it but are pretty useless at identifying causes; Whereas neurologists, psychologists, neuroscientists and even pharmacologists generally have a better grasp of causality - because they're all proper scientists, whereas psychiatrists (in the UK; I do not know about the US system) are not necessarily scientists as far as I am aware - my research is just getting close to that - but they often have a god complex and really hate to be criticised because it undermines the authority gifted them by our doctors are gods culture... Enough of my own prejudice though...

Finally there are hypnotherapists, and this could potentially be a good road for your boyfriend.

11, How willing is your boyfriend to discuss the problem? to what extent does he recognise it as a problem? how motivated is he to do something about it?

12, finally, anything else you think might be relevant; such as family history of mental illness, for example? Just reflect on these questions I've asked; which, of course, you're under no obligation to answer. Or you might feel more comfortable contacting me privately.

It might take me a few days to reply as I have a sleep disorder myself which causes me to sleep excessively, but I will reply and at some length because empowerment through information is primarily what I write at the moment.

And with that in mind, whilst I do not give advice but merely offer my opinion and only then with the caveat that I am not a qualified anything but simply a well informed psychology graduate, what I will say is that my gut feeling is that your boyfriend is experiencing a combination of extreme existential angst (abject terror and horror at the prospect of ceasing to exist when he dies - which is so normal it's rare to find someone who has not been through such a crisis at least once; but with him it's become extreme) combined with severe insecurity about abandonment separation. And the best way to address that, rather than seeking to reassure him when he's finally ready to submit to sleep - because as someone else pointed out that could actually be enabling because if he is suffering extreme insecurity and feels most secure when you're cradling him more than usual because of his terror about sleep and death, then he could subconsciously be perpetuating the fear to get the deep reassurance he needs, or it could even be getting worse if more distress results in more attention from you.

Just to clarify that last sentence: the phrase "attention seeking" is almost exclusively seen through prejudiced eyes but the reality is we all need attention and validation because we're a deeply social species and without reassurance we wither emotionally; this is clearly evidenced in children who are emotionally neglected even when they are given very good care and attention in every other sense - good nutritious food, warm clean clothes etc etc, whilst very important, being starved of emotional security when very young tends to produce emotionally dysfunctional adults, so seeking attention can manifest as melodrama and be just plain annoying when people don't know how to get their need for emotional validation and reassurance met in healthy ways, but it's not fair for those who do know how to get their needs met in a socially acceptable way to condemn those who were not fortunate enough to be treated properly as children. We all need love and affection and there's no way I could ever know without talking with your boyfriend directly and at length, but if this is part of the problem as I suspect, the time for you to validate him is not when he's terrified of sleep but at other times, such as in the small things.

Us guys like and crave compliments as much as women and have the same rules - we want them to be sincere and given without and agenda. So, for example, you might take an interest in his school work at an appropriate moment and remind him how much intelligence turns you on... Conversely, you might ask him whether he's actually interested in what he's studying and try to get him to open up about what he really wants to do and support him to find the courage to follow his dreams without actually paying much attention at all to the sleep problem.

I will give a better reply in follow up to any answers you feel comfortable giving to the questions I have asked, but meanwhile, there are two important things to bear in mind and one piece of something close to advice I have to offer, and I'll share that first:

at the start of 2016 I finally accepted that  I had a hoarding disorder which fell into the OCD category - not all hoarding is obsessive-compulsive hoarding but mine was. So for six months, on the recommendation of a friend, I started going to regular  peer-support meetings for people with the full range of OCD problems. Peer support simply means people who have or have had the same problem helping each other to deal with what they are going through, not in a professional way but simply through empathy, identification, validation and what therapists call unconditional positive regard. I found the experience remarkable and am aware that there is a lot of research evidence in health psychology to support the effectiveness of peer support groups and networks (12 step fellowships such as Alcoholics Anonymous are primarily peer support networks and they can be very effective). So that is simply something to consider.

The most serious thing to say, which is not pleasant but life can be very cruel and we can't run from it because we have to put our own welfare first, which is the healthy selfishness more common called self-preservation or setting healthy boundaries, so it might be the case that your boyfriend is showing the first signs of a serious mental illness. As said, a horrible prospect and something I sincerely hope is not the case but it is something you ought to bear in mind just in case you do have to let go at some point and it might also help you to maintain some objectivity if you're looking out for yourself first, which is the right and proper thing to do.

But I offer that information just as something to consider because, as said above, I don't give advice I simply share my opinions. So finally, for now, I'll just reiterate what I said above about reassuring and validating him in appropriate ways at appropriate times. Which might involve discussing his fear with his family, if they're amenable, and his friends who, if they are not amenable are not his friends. Because if it is a combination of existential angst and profound insecurity, then minimising the attention that the phobia gets without diminishing him in the process - which is a skill to be learnt so you'll need to ask yourself how willing you are to work on this - and both directly bolstering his esteem and confidence and finding ways to help him find his way would also be appropriate if my hunch is correct. But of course I have no idea because this is just education guesswork and I reiterate that this is  just me sharing my opinions, nothing more.

I hope this has been at least a little insightful and you don't mind how long it is
To the poster:  the above person is totally absorbed in his studies.  I've been there.  It's called graduate brain.  Things aren't actually that complex, so while it's an interesting post, don't let it scare you and don't think you have to now go to school and study psychology.  It's not really your problem.  Your only problem is how to love your lover, while his is to get over what's bothering him.  Confusing the two will transform you from someone in a relationship to becoming his therapist, which you don't want to do if you want the relationship to survive.
Thanks for you response, and for all of the time you spent! I will be sending you a private message answering your questions.
Thanks Paxiled! It did kind of surprise me, but i really appreciate his willingness to help, like you did! I've talked to him about how we can't always help each other with everything that goes on in our lives (he's very sensitive about helping me when I'm upset, and gets upset when he's not able to), and he's come to an understanding about it. I wont overwhelm him or become his therapist; I value this relationship too much :)
That's a guy thing -- I know that's a terrible stereotype, but being a guy who is getting old, we're just like that -- we think when someone complains they want us to help fix it and usually they just want to vent.  But some things another person can't fix but they can help just by being there and caring.
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