How to stop an overblown but not totally irrational fear?
December 22, 2010 1:00 PM   Subscribe

I am a grown-ass woman who is afraid of going to bed alone.

I live alone and I like it like that. My only problem is that I live in a ground floor apartment that makes me feel vulnerable to break ins. I only worry about this as I go to sleep because I think that's when someone would try to come in. I felt the same in a second floor apartment, and I would feel the same in almost any other unit where there was a window that would be realistically accessible from outside (so, not in a high rise) I feel mildly panicky for a few minutes as I go to sleep thinking about this. This isn't bothersome enough to move but I would like to stop worrying that some guy is waiting for me to fall asleep so he can break in and rape me. This fear is straddling the line of irrationality and I don't know how to deal with it because it is a legitimate if unlikely risk.
I am not interested in getting roommates or a dog for the feeling of security.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help you think logically and reasonably about these fears.

Also, an AskMe classic, The Gift of Fear book.
posted by k8t at 1:03 PM on December 22, 2010

Yeah, I'm the same way. But it's something I've learned to deal with because it happens every night - I tell myself, "someone isn't waiting in the closet for you to turn out the lights and fall asleep to attack you. If they were here, they would have done so by now." and "if someone breaks in, you'll hear it." Of course, logic plays little part in fear, but little things like window alarms help. You can get them at nearly any department store and they're removable so you can use them in apartments.
posted by patheral at 1:05 PM on December 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can you get some kind of window gate? Some windows also have latches that will only allow the window to open to a certain extent and it is not wide enough for a person to fit through. You can also do this yourself with a pole or stick. Would that be enough to ease your fears?
posted by mokeydraws at 1:06 PM on December 22, 2010

The alarms, etc. suggested by others are all good ideas. I just wanted to say that it's not crazy to be anxious about your living security. I live on a higher floor but with an outdoor walkway access, and I hate that people can walk by my windows and front door. Next time you move, get a higher apartment if you can. It's worth the extra money, I think.
posted by charmcityblues at 1:14 PM on December 22, 2010

It's not uncommon for people to experience anxiety and unwelcome thoughts just before falling sleep, when they have nothing else to occupy their minds. White noise, music, audiobooks and podcasts can be helpful distractions.
posted by hot soup girl at 1:17 PM on December 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

First, this is, unfortunately, a rational fear. But you can go overboard. Seeking therapy is a good way to figure out why you fear some things more than others, irrationally, and what you can do to keep your thoughts in logical check.

That said, take a women's self defense class! Most police organizations will provide one that focuses on rape and the like (my SO teaches one and she won't tell me anything about what they teach in that class.) That might give you some practical skills as well as boost your confidence.

Window gates, alarms (even alarm stickers...), keeping lots of cacti on your window sills, keep a flashlight and maybe a blunt object or pepper spray near by... all good things you could do as well.

There's a lot to fear in the world, and fear can be a very good, healthy thing (instinct says....don't pet the bear!). But when it starts to take over certain parts of our lives, like sleep, it's probably time to talk to someone.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:25 PM on December 22, 2010

What you want is a security laminate. It goes on with a squeegee and doesn't affect visibility, but it makes it much harder for someone to come through the window.
posted by Rhomboid at 1:46 PM on December 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

I am exactly the same way and have been ever since a bad experience at an apartment in a bad neighborhood several years ago. I tried using a humidifier to create white noise so that every little sound didn't wake me up, but then I freaked out about what I couldn't hear.

I still have this issue, but it's not as bad since I moved into an apartment with vertical blinds on the sliding glass door of my bedroom and a really loud, echo-y walkway right outside. If someone tries to break in, it's going to wake me up, no question. If you're a light sleeper like I am, I suggest keeping something near your windows/doors that will make some kind of sound if disturbed. It also helps having something close by to grab in the unlikely event you ever need to defend yourself.
posted by katillathehun at 2:01 PM on December 22, 2010

I don't know if this is realistic for you or fits your preferences, but the warm dog sleeping on my feet every night brings me immense peace of mind.

Also, your fear is not irrational. I'd suggest you reassure yourself that the security measures in your home (window locks, door locks) are adequate, make sure you always have a charged phone in grabbing distance, and have a plan in mind in case there is a break in. My planned route of retreat, for example, is my bedroom closet, where I keep a carefully secured weapon.
posted by bearwife at 2:07 PM on December 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

What you want to do in this case is master your mind, not put bars on the windows.

Your mind, not the world, is the cause of your anxiety and fear. You know that you don't really have control over what happens, and that worrying is a waste of time.

Solutions: mediation, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, prayer, sleeping pills.

(I have anxiety myself, so I know how icky it can be. Good luck!)
posted by goblinbox at 2:17 PM on December 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is only an option if a pet is something you would have considered and wanted anyway, but... get a dog or a cat. It's reassuring when the little noises in the night have an easily identifiable cause, and you can also be reassured that other noises aren't alarming when your pet sleeps right through them. Both dogs and cats will prick up their ears and go to investigate any genuinely unusual noise.
posted by MsMolly at 2:28 PM on December 22, 2010

I think hypnosis or self-hypnosis would help.
posted by theora55 at 2:31 PM on December 22, 2010

I was totally in this situation. I think I'm okay now, but I'm not sure because I live on the 4th floor :)

My fear started 11 years ago, during the summer I transferred colleges. In digging down to figure out why this started, there were two things. I had been housesitting with someone who would leave without warning, such that I'd come home from a weekend away and the door of the house would be wide open. He didn't care at all about my safety or my needs. What really tipped me over was when a girl I knew fell off of a mountain and died during a routine geology trip. I hadn't expected to see her again, since I was transferring, but it was a shock to realize that I would NEVER see her again.

I think that such a freak accident just pinged the part of me that was already up in arms about so much change -- because, hey, thinking that the train-hopping rapist from New Jersey will come get you is irrational, but nobody EVER thought that girl would fall off a mountain, so NOBODY IS SAFE FROM CRAZY SHIT.

Unfortunately, the other part of the equation is feeling so alone because you feel like nobody would understand this childish, irrational thing, so it wells up and gets worse.

For me, the fear manifested itself as "I'm the only one sleeping on the first floor, so I'm the first line of defense and nobody cares about me..." a-HA! That last bit really hit home.

So think about what might be out of place in your life to draw so much anxiety together in this one spot. Therapy can help, especially because the therapist won't judge you for feeling this way. It's sort of the reverse of spiraling up into a globalized tizzy: spiral down until you figure out the very basic, lizard-brain thing that is setting off your sirens.

In a pinch, I rely on my terrible housekeeping -- 20 pairs of shoes and a big cooler over by the window would really do a number on anyone breaking in. I don't put them there on purpose, but it helps ;)

Also, this is a great time for you to get to know your neighbors. Doesn't matter if you have absolutely nothing in common; bake some cookies, learn their names, have them learn your name and recognize you by face, and say hi to them in the hallway. You'll hopefully feel like you can count on other people a little more, and you'll hopefully feel a little less alone to boot.

I hope these posts help you remember that you aren't alone -- by a long shot.
posted by Madamina at 2:39 PM on December 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Bearwife's suggestion of a plan is right on. Figure out exactly what you'd do in your worst-case scenario and run through it until you feel comfortable. Be able to locate your phone in the dark and dial it, keep some sort of weapon in reach and know how to use it, and plan escape routes. Then file the plan away in the back of your mind and try to think about it. Being prepared should help you gain some sense of control, and you can remind yourself of that when anxious thoughts arise.
posted by martianna at 2:56 PM on December 22, 2010

try NOT to think about it, sorry
posted by martianna at 2:57 PM on December 22, 2010

The OP says she is not interested in getting a dog.

The security laminate looks great, I didn't know it existed. Depending upon you, your landlord, and your building, you might be able to talk to him/her about putting security bars on the outside of your bedroom window if it's not on the front of the building. If not, you can look into burglar bars that are mounted inside. Look online, ask at larger hardware/DIY stores or specialist stores (take photos of the inside of your windows--ask about removing them when you move out (ie can you use putty and paint to remove traces that they were there and not lose too much of your deposit). White bars blend nicely with curtains when seen from the outside. Add a security bar for the door (front door, bedroom door, or both). Put the laminate on all the windows and your bedroom is not totally impervious but any intruder will wake you long before they get inside. If you want to keep a blunt weapon by your bed, get a 3-4 cell Maglite--whatever size you can comfortably swing. It's dual-purpose which is a good enough reason alone, but also good if you live in a place where the police/courts frown on possessing weapons with the attention of actually using them as weapons. Have a landline phone by your bed with emergency services on speed-dial.
posted by K.P. at 3:17 PM on December 22, 2010

I live in a first floor unit in a big city. I have an alarm system. It's been necessary.
posted by Pax at 3:56 PM on December 22, 2010

Mod note: few comments removed - folks - dog has been specifically rejected in the question. thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:49 PM on December 22, 2010

I suspect there is a significant difference between how men and women answer this question. I am a woman, and my answer is: unless you live in a crime free haven (read: somewhere in Northern Europe in a really good neighborhood), your fears are legitimate.

I am a man, and I completely agree with you except for the part about how I wouldn't agree with you. The idea that only women are worried about crime is a canard. This isn't a woman-specific problem.

I don't even think it is a problem for the OP to be worried about crime when going to sleep. Again, that's a rational fear, not a phobia.

The problem isn't that you have this fear at all; the problem is how much you're dwelling on it. In the end, there's always going to be some risk no matter what you do in life.

By all means, come up with a security system; this could mean buying an alarm system, or it could mean just knowing where you'd go and what you'd do if someone broke in. One easy thing to do is to have your phone close to your bed (or at least, always in the same place so you know how to get to it and call 911).

But at some point, you have to relax and get to sleep. I listen to podcasts, as I find this lets me strike a balance of being interested enough in the audio that I don't focus on my thoughts, while also being dull enough to fall asleep to.
posted by John Cohen at 4:58 PM on December 22, 2010

I think oprah said once that you should never live below the second floor...and if it won't get me banned from here, I agree! I looked at an apartment this summer in nyc and loved it but didn't like the window on ground floor looking out to the street. I asked for bars in the windows and received a lot of 'are you kidding me??' from the estate agent (and his boss). As a single, and maybe somewhat paranoid female, I think your fears are justified and that a higher floor would be better. I still don't like the balcony on the 4th floor below me where I am now..but I feel much better being so high up. Sorry if this is the wrong kind of answer, I just agree with your fears and have them myself, so much so that I couldn't handle the ground floor at all. I would suggest moving- you will sleep better.
posted by bquarters at 5:13 PM on December 22, 2010

I don't mean to scare the crap out of you but this is an entirely rational fear. I say this as a woman who woke up in the middle of the night because my pet cockatoo was screaming the place down, to find a man crouched in the corner of my bedroom 3 feet away from me. True story. He was a rapist in the area who had done this many times before and my pet was the only thing that saved me. Guess who has always had an animal in the house since? I now also have a big burly husband and good security system but I have 2 kitties too. I highly recommend a pet of some sort, it was a nasty scare but his plans for me were much worse.
posted by Jubey at 5:36 PM on December 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I say this as a woman who woke up in the middle of the night because my pet cockatoo was screaming the place down, to find a man crouched in the corner of my bedroom 3 feet away from me.

Well, speaking of making people feel secure, I think knowing what you did that worked to get out of that situation would be helpful!
posted by unannihilated at 5:50 PM on December 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ran like hell. This option may not work for everyone.
posted by Jubey at 11:37 PM on December 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of the best things someone told me when I was speculating about how I'd probably get cancer from not eating organic food was, "well, the stress you cause yourself by always worrying about your produce is probably doing as much damage to your health guaranteed as the pesticides may or may not do." I also tell myself that more people die every year of coconuts falling from trees than die from shark attacks. So, would it help you to compare statistics about the likelihood of getting raped by a stranger sneaking into your home to other dangers that you routinely accept?
posted by salvia at 12:21 AM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I was 14 I caught a guy looking in my bedroom window, and I had nightmares about it for years, and also fears of break-ins. Do anything that will make you more comfortable. For example, if putting a pepper spray keychain on your bedside table would make you more comfortable, do it. (Put it somewhere that you won't accidentally grab it when you're half asleep trying to answer a ringing phone, and keep the lock on.)

Clear shower curtain = no more fear of someone hiding behind it when I go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

I don't sleep with a night light and like it very dark, but I have a little AAA-battery-powered lantern (the tiny kind you might find in the camping section at walmart for under $10) that I keep on my bedside table. It's not very bright and I turn it on when I get up to go to the bathroom so when I come back, I can see better. (You can also keep 1 eye closed the entire time you're in the bathroom so it's still adjusted to the dark, but sometimes I forget and it's a pain.)

Also, shortly after that guy was caught looking in my window, my dad called and requested a street light be put in at the end of our driveway. The request was granted, and part of the light hit my window so anyone walking up near the house would be silhouetted on my blinds.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:53 AM on December 23, 2010

In my experience, anything that improves your self-confidence - particularly your confidence in your physical self - will help you be more calm in the face of potential threats.

Of course, nothing you do will render you literally completely impervious to all possible forms of threat. But if you can imagine facing an intruder with anger, shouting "Get the hell out of my house!", or dispatching a wimpy rapist by application of your sarcastic wit, then maybe you'll be able to sleep better at night.

For me, getting physically stronger helped, as did becoming more assertive. It's not that these could realistically get me out of a difficult situation more easily (although they might); it's something about meeting people on more equal terms; feeling that they don't have the power to damage me mentally, even if they can damage me physically.

Other things that help, I think, are things that help you learn that you can go through setbacks and come out swinging. If you know in your heart that things that don't kill you really do make you stronger, then you can be less afraid of all the unpleasant things in life. Go and try something where you might fail, or learn something where you will probably fall over a lot, and keep trying until you don't fail and you don't fall over. Say Hi to your newfound inner strength!
posted by emilyw at 4:48 AM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I disagree with the folks who say these are rational fears. I know they are trying to be helpful, but really that serves as a rationale for continuing to dwell on them. The OP has an issue with fear that continues to bother her after she has gone to bed. That is NOT rational, given that she has taken measures to be safe. It's debilitating. Lying awake in fear is not healthy, and it's not rational. It's the irrational fear that she may have forgotten or overlooked something - or that someone may be planning to do something, which is totally beyond her control.

To the OP: Do the things you know you need to do to be safe. Lock your doors and windows at night. That kind of thing. If you are worried about forgetting something, than make a list. A lot of the suggestions listed above are good ones for security and peace of mind.

Now to deal with the fear. Make a note of when you start to think negative or stressful thoughts. Imagine those thoughts being corralled up and herded off by your internal "thought police". Or, some people imagine those negative thoughts turning into colorful balloons, floating out of their heads, and going "pop". In any case, think of a visual image that comprises a narrative by which you dispose of negative thoughts.

It can take a long time, but eventually it's reflexive. Even better, you can just stop having fearful or negative thoughts. You got yourself into the habit of thinking about your fears, you can cultivate the habit of not thinking about them.

You don't have to worry about anything. Take normal measures for security. Dispose of your debilitating thoughts.
posted by Xoebe at 12:29 PM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

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