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.
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 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:
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.
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 ways to prevent night terrors through decreased anxiety so consider trying them first. Specifically, try the natural remedies St John's Wort and L-Theanine.
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.
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.
For a more in-depth look at treating the root cause, see my article on How I Dealt with Night Terrors.