Night terrors (also known as sleep terrors) are a disturbing sleep disorder which most commonly affects young children but can also occur at times of stress in adults.
The condition can become chronic and is characterized by waking up in the night, screaming in terror and having hallucinations of fearful images like bugs in the bed.
This article explores the causes of this sleep disorder and how to stop night terrors without the need for prescription medication.
What are Night Terrors?
This bizarre sleep disorder goes by many names including: sleep terror disorder, pavor nocturnus, and DSM-IV AXIS I:307.46 (that would be the medical name). It shares similarities with Hallucinatory Sleep Disorder (HSD) yet many people go undiagnosed simply because they don’t understand what’s happening to them.
Not to be confused with bog standard nightmares or even sleep paralysis, night terrors involve waking up suddenly from deep slow wave sleep about 15-60 minutes after dozing off. Victims may jump out of bed, experiencing extreme terror and a temporary inability to regain full consciousness.
This is often accompanied by fearsome hallucinations which vary from person to person. In the past when I experienced night terrors it was always a giant spider that was either walking up the bed or hovering in the air before me.
This instigates the fight or flight response – an evolutionary instinct which helps us flee from emergency situations with a rush of adrenaline. The fear is intense, and the sufferer will often scream and shout and be highly motivated to get away. In this half-sleep state, they will not respond well to logical statements (“calm down, it’s just a dream”) and some people have no memory of the attack whatsoever.
Night Terrors: The Causes
Night terrors in children are the most common and yet we are not immune to this condition as adults. Research has identified some specific causes such as:
Physical or emotional stress
Medications (including sedatives)
Stimulants before bed
Jet lag or time zone changes
Sleeping somewhere new
According to the Night Terrors Resource Center, the longer you are in non-REM sleep before the terror strikes, the greater the fear. It is possible to provoke an episode in a sufferer by merely touching them while in deep, non-REM sleep. In fact, a recent study found that in 81% of cases, physical contact and proximity of a sleeping partner or a pet on the bed was the trigger for the already predisposed sufferers.
How to Stop Night Terrors
There are different schools of thought on the best way to stop night terrors in children and adults. Some recommend that you hold and reassure the sufferer when they jump up screaming and shouting, which also prevents them from hurting themselves. However, they may be extremely paranoid and think you’re trying to harm them, so if this is their reaction, let them move about freely.
It’s also important to stay calm yourself. Don’t yell at them because this will make them more anxious and confused. They will already be extremely confused from the sudden adrenaline rush and quite possibly be half-asleep, so be patient and try to bring them back to reality with reassuring words.
Often, my hallucinations lasted no more than five seconds, yet seeing them appear so vividly in my bedroom left an imprint on my mind. It took some convincing before I would finally “wake up” and accept that there was never anything there.
In severe cases, doctors prescribe anti-depressant drugs like Klonopin, Tofranil or Valium. However, there are natural remedies available withought prescription such as:
•St John’s Wort (mainly used for depression, mild anxiety and sleep problems due to its sedative effects – please read up on dosage and interactions here first).
•L-Theanine (mainly used for anxiety, preventing dementia, and treating high blood pressure – again, be sure to read up on L-Theanine before taking it yourself).
If you or your child suffers from sleep terrors, you can try the following relaxation methods to prevent the build up of anxiety which often leads to the attack.
•Unwind Before Sleep – Give your child time to unwind at the end of a busy day before sending them to bed. Run them a warm bath, play peaceful music and snuggle up with a book before bed.
•Cool Down – Make sure the bedroom is not overly hot in the summer, as this can exacerbate an episode. Leave the window open a crack and give them lightweight pajamas. Avoid PJs with feet.
•Play Music – It helps to fall asleep to the sound of soothing music, which aids the transition between each phase of sleep when the parasomnia occurs. It can also create good mental imagery to relax your mind as you fall asleep.
•Herbal Remedies – Take a Chamomile capsule an hour before bed. In chronic sufferers, it may take a week to see a reduction in night terrors but this is a reliable herbal remedy that is less habit-forming than prescription drugs.
•Essential Oils – Scents are highly evocative so try a relaxing essential oil like Lavender to calm yourself and ensure the aroma sticks around until morning.
Be especially prepared for night terrors to recur in unusual circumstances such as sleeping while jet lagged or severely sleep deprived, or sleeping in a new location (either the bed has moved, or you’re in a different house altogether).
Another way to reduce the stress that causes sleep terrors is to seek out counseling to release any negative anxieties that may be to blame. The night terrors may be linked to phobias or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) so dealing with the root of the anxiety is a good way to treat this condition that goes bump in the night.
How I Dealt with Night Terrors
I was 23 when I began to suffer from night terrors.
Night terrors for me were not merely bad dreams. They were shocking and fearsome hallucinations that arose after waking suddenly from a deep, dreamless sleep.
The first time it happened, Pete and I had just flown for 22 hours to New Zealand and were suffering from sleep deprivation and the subsequent jet lag which interrupted our sleep rhythms. Though he appeared to suffer few ill effects, it opened me up to this bizarre sleep disorder.
I’m not a screamy type of person. Nevertheless, on this night I woke up screaming in absolute terror – seeing a giant six-foot-tall tarantula standing on its back legs in the bedroom. It was in an aggressive attack position, reaching toward me with its front legs beating. I can recall the image very clearly now (and this was 7 years ago). It was like a bolt of lightening had shot through me. And I knew, without doubt, that the beast had malicious intent. I had to escape.