Woman looking distressed and crying surrounded by two pillows

Pillow Panic

I have heard – from people who revel in the passionate delights of blissful sleep – that the mere sight of a pillow can bring a sense of peace and relaxation.

That doesn’t happen for me.

Despite weighted eyelids and weary legs, the sight of my pillow elevates my pulse and increases my breath rate. I have become so well trained at staying awake in bed that just looking at my pillow induces anxiety. I’ve become Pavlov’s pillow panicker.

Anxiety and I go way back

Anxiety is something I am intimately familiar with. The past 5 years, in particular, have seen me struggling with severe episodes of anxiety and panic. After much deterioration then pharmaceutical experimentation, my general levels of anxiety are much better now. Over the same course of time, my insomnia also exploded but with a lot of medical support, it has become quite well controlled.

But my fear of the pillow has never left.

What anxiety feels like

Anxiety is a very unpleasant experience.1 It’s feeling nervous and stressed and worried and afraid all at the same time while knowing logically there’s nothing to be afraid of.

The heart thumps so hard I wonder if it can be seen through my pyjamas. My face is flushed. Faster breathing brings on a slight sense of lightheadedness. Clenched fists cling to an invisible rope. And a chaotic thought process starts where I convince myself that sleep is an impossibility once my head hits the pillow. That it is easier to sleep standing next to the bed than it will be when I lie down upon my carefully selected, high thread count linen.

The dreaded walk from couch to bed

Each night I slowly relax in front of the television until sleep seems inevitable. Then the short trip from lounge room to bedroom and the sight of my dreaded comfy pillow brings a state of hyperarousal I had been carefully talking myself out of just minutes earlier.

I hate that walk from couch to bed.

I hate it so much I have often stayed sleeping on the couch rather than brave the walk. After my mental health deteriorated to severe levels and psychiatric inpatient stays to treat my insomnia, I have become very conscious of focusing on good sleep hygiene. Sleeping on the couch is not good sleep hygiene.

An association I cannot break

My husband is very supportive and understanding so each night he gently coerces me to get up and make the trek to the bedroom where I climb into bed and try to focus on anything I can except the fear of staying awake.

Since successfully starting on sleeping pills, I regularly sleep on and off throughout the night. I receive adequate amounts of sleep. Still, that association between pillow and insomnia remains.

I am making progress

It’s a comfy pillow – don’t get me wrong. It was most carefully selected then swaddled in a lovely soft pillowcase. But I’ve had a long association of staring at the ceiling the moment my head lay upon it. And that association is difficult to break.

But gradually, I’m making progress. I give in to the necessity to go to bed every night. I focus on the comfort of the pillow, not its sleepless history. I engage in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to help with anxiety symptoms and to develop a positive association with bed. Thinking about the comfort and directing thoughts toward pleasant events of the day. Or the day to come.

Pillow panic has had a serious detrimental impact on my sleeping. Learning to overcome it is an important part of my new sleep routine.

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