Can You Really Sleep Away Your Fears?

Wouldn't it be amazing if we could just sleep away our fears? What if there was a way to conquer our fears that involved nothing more taxing than lying down calmly to sleep at night?
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Research finds that we can reduce certain fears in a couple of weeks.

It's no secret that fear increases pain and suffering from any health problem. Wouldn't it be amazing if we could just sleep away our fears? What if there was a way to conquer our fears that involved nothing more taxing than lying down calmly to sleep at night?

It sounds preposterous, but a recent study in online medical journal Nature Neuroscience found that it is indeed possible to change people's fear reactions while they sleep.

The key? Scent, that powerful trigger for memories both good and bad. The researchers began by inducing fears in their subjects while they were awake. Next, these newly induced fears were paired with a scent, making the scent a trigger for the fear memory. Later, while the subjects slept, they were exposed to the scent to activate memory of the induced fear. The result: Simply introducing particular fears during the subjects' sleep cycle ultimately led to a significant lessening of those same fears.

This study had limitations -- the fear memories were induced in a laboratory setting, not by real-life experiences. Yet what they found is still quite applicable to our everyday lives.

Let's take a look at how sleep can be used to alter our own fears: I discovered some time ago that a powerful strategy for creating change is to pair two primary drives together. When such drives are paired together, it becomes possible to strengthen one at the expense of the other. There are many examples of primary drives competing with each other -- you've probably experienced being too tired to eat, or in too much pain to sleep. Similarly, it's possible to use the sleep drive as a strategy to interfere with or shrink the fear response.

Ready to try sleeping your fears away? Here's what to do: Start by selecting a fear you would like to address. It's best to start with a low-grade fear (I am going to get into a conflict with my boss or co-worker); as opposed to a high-level fear (I am going to get sicker and sicker).

Just before or after dinner, think of this fear and pair it with an essential oil scent such as eucalyptus or rosemary. Feel free to choose any scent but ideally, use one that has limited other associations in your life. Lightly breathe in the scent while you evoke the fear -- say, by imagining a conflict with your boss. Allot two to three minutes for this exercise.

Later that night while in bed and as close to falling asleep as possible, smell the essential oil again--and place a couple of drops near your nightstand so the scent can linger while you sleep. Once you fall asleep, the fear that you associated with the scent -- conflict with your boss -- becomes neutralized and weakened by the primary drive of sleep.

Now, rather than conflict with your boss being a trigger for a fear, it is associated with a feeling of relaxation. You may also find that listening to a sleep or hypnosis-inducing sound file at bedtime helps as well.

Repeat this process every night -- consistency is very important -- until you begin to notice a shift in your fear. In most cases, you should perceive a change in one to two weeks. If you find this method helpful, then gradually introduce some higher-level fears, pairing each with its own distinct scent.

Keep in mind that this approach isn't meant to replace any other professional treatments you may be using for your fears or other emotional issues.

This article first appeared at in the Schoen Report.

Marc Schoen, Ph.D. is the author of Your Survival Instinct is Killing You. Hudson Street Press, 2013. Plume, 2014

Copyright 2014 Marc Schoen, Ph.D.