Sleep terrors are not nightmares. I can safely assert this because I have experienced plenty of both. Nightmares tend to have a narrative; they are frightening or disturbing or gory. You wake from a nightmare feeling scared but knowing what occurred was a bad dream. You turn on the light, get a cuddle if you’re lucky enough to have someone in bed with you, calm down and go back to sleep.
Sleep terrors (also known as night terrors or parasomnia) are distinct from nightmares. Their occurrence is not exclusive to small children, although that’s where we hear about them the most. A small but significant proportion of adults also experience sleep terrors.
What happens in a sleep terror?
Characteristic of sleep terrors is a a sudden awakening from sleep with an overpowering feeling of panic. Hence terror being in the name. Often sufferers can’t explain what happened or recall a dream, they may instead have a vague memory of frightening images or sensations. It’s difficult to wake someone from a sleep terror, and when you do they may be very confused and disorientated.
The worst thing about my own sleep terrors is that I am unable to fully wake myself up. I am suddenly aware I’m in a terrifying dream. My eyes are open and I can see sinister animals, images or people from the dream in my bedroom, but I can’t move or speak. I am completely paralysed, sometimes for as long as twenty minutes. With a massive effort, I can usually force out some kind of guttural grunting sound to wake my wife. Once she speaks to me for a while, I am able to wake my body from its paralysis. But the panic stays in my system and it is really difficult for her to comfort me.
The same thing everyone always tells us to do. Relax. Eat healthily. Don’t get worked up before bedtime. Practice mindfulness. Allocate time before bed to wind down from your day. In my experience, these things can make a difference. Sometimes. But sometimes my sleep terrors come from nowhere on a day I haven’t felt particularly stressed or anxious. I’ve asked quite a few doctors for advice on this and their only recommendation was taking some pills to knock me out at night.
One tip I read in a forum online has actually made a big difference to me. Someone who suffered similar sleep paralysis to me suggested that instead of desperately trying to wake my whole body, I should focus really hard on one small area. This works for me. The next time I awoke in frozen panic, it only took a short while concentrating on moving one finger for me to be able to wake the rest of my body. Knowing this has made a huge difference to me, I feel like I’m not completely powerless over my sleep terrors anymore.
You can find loads more useful information on sleep terrors via the links below.
Photo: Jenny Ondioline, Creative Commons.