- Diseases, Disorders & Conditions
Personal Experiences with Night Terrors- What They're Really Like
When it comes to sleeping disorders, people most often think of one with very obvious and unnerving affects such as sleepwalking. Obviously this is a person up and about despite the fact that their still effectively sleeping, though sometimes their eyes can be open and they may even interact with their surroundings. But what if a person has sleep-walking issues while they have a nightmare?
Well that, dear friends, is a layman’s approach to night terrors. This sleep disorder isn’t studied in much detail due to the fact that it most often occurs in children ranging from six months to three years of age, where a child’s description of their experience is patchy at best. It occurs in roughly 5% of the planet’s population at one time or another in peoples’ lives.
Night terrors also known as Pavor Nocturnus, and Sleep Terror Disorder. In children of this age range the most often signs of a night terror episode are: screaming, crying, profuse sweating, tachycardia, strange behavior, the inability to waken completely, dilated eyes unresponsive to light, and the impression of extreme fear. This is always characterized by REM, the person or child’s eyes flick back and forth quickly, regardless of whether the eyes are open or closed.
It may seem as if the child is awake, and they may even interact with other people and their surroundings, but technically the brain is still in deep sleep mode. Such episodes can last up to half an hour. Aside from the REM, this disorder is characterized by a person’s display of two separate behaviors. They can appear confused and do not recognize their family and surroundings; conversely they can be absolutely terrified of their surroundings and will flee anyone who tries to approach them as if the hounds of Hell were at their heels. In the mind of the sufferer, they are.
It should be noted that someone experiencing night terrors later in one’s life is incredibly uncommon, occurring in less than 0.001% of the population. My father suffered from head-banging syndrome, a disorder which occurs only within infants, well into his late 20s. I myself am an insomniac who, when he finally does get to sleep, can conk out for up to 14 hours without trouble. In any case, this does give some credence to the suggestion that night terrors have a genetic link. Some people suggest that it’s a trauma induced state, and while it’s possible that me be a factor correlated with this disorder, the fact that it most often occurs in children so very young makes it unlikely.
The exact dream state experienced is little known as most people who experience night terrors have no memory of what they perceived. I have had first-hand experience with this disorder for many years, my brother suffered from it from the age of 5 to this very day now that he’s in his early 20s. To witness it is both worrying and incredibly eerie.
On many occasions my brother was capable of sprinting through a pitch-black room with his eyes closed, hurtling around and over a minefield of chairs, tables, lamps, and discarded items without breaking step or tripping. The agility late sufferers of this disorder display is bordering on Olympian; their hearts pound, their breath comes in gasps, every muscle is taut as a bowstring, and they never utter so much as a peep. This is, of course, not always the case and usually only occurs when the night terror sufferer shows behavior indicating fear rather than confusion.
Sometimes certain medications can trigger night terrors. Benadryl and other antihistamines would cause a night terror every single time, despite doctor’s suggestions that they would have the opposite effect.
I recall one particularly bad episode which lasted well over an hour where we thought my brother was possessed. He picked up and threw a sofa halfway across the room, despite the fact that it weighed more than he did. He then proceeded to run into the bathroom and, light as a feather, scrambled with his hands and feet clean up corner of the tiled walls to slam against the ceiling. He crashed down into the tub and cracked the porcelain soap dish in half on his chin, but never once did he awaken.
Treatment for night terrors can be difficult as not much in the way of definitive research is present. My brother, who prefers to remain anonymous, told me what it was like. He said the real world was overlaid by a nightmarish one, turning the familiar and loving home into a den of horrors. A wall might appear to be hung in chains or made of rusted iron. Leather sofas might be torture equipment from the medieval period, and so on. That is why it is imperative that one never approach someone undergoing a night terror. In the midst of their nightmare, they see their friends and loved ones as horrific and malicious beings who are only interested in doing harm.
Imipramine and several benzodiazepines have been suggested for use in preventing night terrors and have had a generally positive effect. However one must remember that these are substances which can become addictive and abused, so good luck finding a physician willing to prescribe them to an adult, let alone a child.
One less mind-altering alternative which I’ve always found effective is changing the mood in the house to one more familiar and comforting. Turn on the lights and appliances which are typically heard throughout the day and the sufferer has come to associate with normal life. Try talking to the person in a soothing voice such as one would use to lull a baby to sleep. As they don’t visually perceive much in this state, light scented candles if you use them often, and play music familiar to the person.
All this can help to change the nightmare mind-set which the sufferer finds him/herself locked in to one which is more benign. If it works, the sufferer will allow you to approach and you can then put them back in bed with a reasonable degree of certainty that the episode has been dealt with.
Unfortunately, this method only deals with the individual episode and the problem may re-occur in the future. There is nothing which has proven one-hundred percent effective to date, though you’ll be the first to know if I find one.
Have further questions or want to share your own night terror experiences? Comment.