It usually happens in the middle of the night. The kids have been in bed for several hours and you and your spouse are settling into your own REM sleep. Suddenly the house is flooded with screams of terror from one of your children. Blankets and pillows fly through the air as the two of you scramble to your child’s room to find them lying in bed screaming at the top of their lungs. Assuming a nightmare, you try to rouse them from sleep only to discover they are in a deep sleep, despite their screams. All efforts to snap them out of their terror-filled trance fail and you’re left to watch and worry until the terror subsides on its own.
Sleep specialists call these episodes “night terrors”. Different from nightmares, this particular sleeping disorder normally occurs in the transition between Stage 4 to REM sleep. What this means is during a night terror, the individual is actually asleep despite all evidence to the contrary. Many people who suffer from night terrors often appear awake, complete with open eyes, screaming, and movement of the extremities. In reality, they are in such a deep level of sleep that most sufferers of night terrors have no recollection of the event.
Cause of Night Terrors
While night terrors can occur at any age, most reported cases occur in small children. Statistical research reveals up to 15% of children report having experienced at least one night terror. Most of the scientific community believe night terrors are caused by an over-arousal of the central nervous system. While most children do seem to outgrow this condition, there have been recorded instances of adults who suffer from this disorder usually during periods of heightened stress. This, of course, can lead to other sleeping disorders, not the least of which is simple sleep deprivation.
Researchers have suggested a link between pediatric sleep apnea and night terrors. With this in mind, it is a good idea to have your pediatrician check your child for sleep apnea if they are suffering from night terrors. Sleep apnea can prevent the sufferer from getting enough rest. This restless sleep coupled with periods of stress can trigger episodes of night terrors in those who are most susceptible to them.
How To Handle Night Terrors
No matter who in our household is suffering from night terrors, the effects of an episode can be traumatic. At first there doesn’t seem to be much that can be done to stop a night terror event. However, with a cool head and a few common sense steps, the night terrors can be handled by anyone:
Try To Keep Yourself Calm
The first step in any potentially traumatic situation is to stay calm. Adding your own panic to a situation will do the exact opposite of what you want to do; namely help your loved one. Most likely the individual will not remember anything from the event although adults who experience night terrors report a feeling of comfort coming from calm, reassuring voices from their loved ones. With that in mind, offering words of comfort and safety in a calm, soothing voice is often a very helpful step you can take to alter the effects of night terrors.
Minimize The Stress
Research has linked intense periods of stress to most cases of night terrors. With that in mind, it is important that the stresses of life be lessened as much as possible. If it is a small child, major developmental changes like potty training or a change in their daily schedule should not be introduced during this time, if at all possible. Also keeping emotional stressors like yelling, arguing, or severe punishments (if it’s a child) to a bare minimum is extremely helpful. Eliminating T.V. for a period of time can also be a big stress-reducer. In short, do everything in your power to lessen the stress load on the individual suffering with night terrors to help lessen the effects, if not shorten the time period, of the episodes.
Do Not Use The Force
Trying to force an individual awake during a night terror episode can often be more traumatic for the sufferer than the episode itself. The natural inclination may be to “snap them out” of their terror, but most sufferers who are forced awake often suffer from extreme disorientation often to the point of temporary amnesia. As difficult as it may be for you, letting the episode play out is always the better choice.
Watch For Patterns
There are often discernible patterns to night terrors like the time of night each episode occurs. If you are able to determine a recurring pattern to their frequent terrors, waking the individual 15 minutes before the episode normally occurs will “reset” their sleep pattern and often prevent the terror from occurring.
Dealing with a loved one suffering with night terrors is not an exact science, and these tips are simply suggestions that may or may not succeed in helping, depending on the severity of the condition. As always, when it comes to any clinical sleeping disorder, a professional medical expert who specializes in sleep disorders is your best bet to find the answers you need to help you and your loved ones get the sleep you need.