“I wish I’d never read this.” How new information can trigger a fear response

Back in the days when I had insomnia, I used to visit different insomnia forums with the hope to find something that can help me. Most of the time I ended up being more anxious and sleeping worse than before. For example, I remember having very little sleep every night when I found a post by a person who claimed he didn’t sleep at all for 4 days – and guess what – I pretty soon started having all-nighters myself.

Or recently, I posted a piece of content on self-monitoring (with the approach on how to overcome it) and it made some people more anxious because they haven’t experienced it before.

I see this pattern almost everywhere: the moment we learn about some new “scary” thing, it seems like we bring it on ourselves. It feels almost mystical, but in reality, there is no mystery at all.

New things attract our attention

It all comes down to the way the brain normally works.

Imagine you are sitting in your room, alone, reading a book when you suddenly hear a noise. Now all your attention goes to that sound. You no longer focus on the book, the brain is trying to figure out where that noise came from. Is there someone in the room? Did you lock the door? What possibly could it be?

To the brain, it looks like this: the casual quietness of the room was considered a known and thus safe environment. Now, the noise is something new, it is unknown and stands out from that environment. Until the brain figures out what was that noise and is it something potentially dangerous, for some time your attention will be drawn to it.

It’s a very simplified explanation, but what I mean is that our brain will always react to some extent to anything new, unknown, or odd – and that applies to any brain.

Insomnia teaches the brain to be more sensitive and reactive

Insomnia brain (and here I just refer to the brain that learned that not sleeping is a threat) is extra sensitive to anything new, unknown, or odd. Not only does it pay attention to something that stands out from the known environment, but it also is more likely to react with hyperarousal – because it learned that sleep is in constant danger and it should watch out.

This is why every time you stumble upon new information about sleep, insomnia, or the experience of others, the brain unintentionally focuses on it to “try it on” yourself – and if it decides that it is a potential threat, it triggers a fear response.

And as you know the main “law” of insomnia – the more we fear losing sleep, the less we sleep – our reaction creates trouble sleeping.

The truth: we can’t avoid all triggers

You might think: now I need to be extra careful to not read anything that might trigger me, but that’s not going to solve the problem in the long run.

It’s not the problem that those “scary” things exist, the problem is that we try to avoid them.

It’s not possible to avoid everything that might trigger us, because we can get triggered simply by a casually thrown word. But understanding our reactions and seeing them for what they really are can bring back that balance.

The good news: it’s not forever

While we can’t avoid all possible triggers, we can be sure of one thing: everything new with time becomes old. Everything unknown soon gets known. Our brains, when exposed consistently to the “new” thing, eventually get used to it. It stops being new. This is how our brain gets less and less sensitive to it and thus – more calm.

If you feel more sleep anxiety after reading something, just know it is not forever. The brain just saw new information and decided to “keep an eye” on it for a while until it makes sure that you are safe. The more you are open to that experience, not trying to escape or act on that, the sooner the brain gets desensitized and sleep comes back.

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