Dreams have been called the brain’s home movies. When the lights are low and sleep sets in, the brain seems to process the events of the day in sight, sound and taste. If the day was pleasant, those dreams might be wonderful. But if the day was filled with some kind of tension or distress, those dreams can take a nasty turn into the land of nightmare. When the sleeper awakens, the memory of those unpleasant dreams can hang on, and sometimes they can even color that person’s experience in the days that follow. All of this could take place even when no one else knows that a nasty dream took hold.
Even though they take place during sleep, night terrors are completely different than nightmares.
These episodes are disruptive to others, and the dreamer rarely remembers that anything has happened when morning rolls around again. If the dreamer isn’t awakened during an episode, that person might feel perfectly well the following day. But that doesn’t mean night terrors should be ignored. Sometimes they provide important clues about a person’s physical and mental health.
A Sleeping Brain
Sleep isn’t a static activity. The brain shifts from one type of brain wave to another and then back again during sleep, and while these cycles might be invisible to the naked eye, they’re vital to the long-term health of the brain. Night terrors seem to capitalize on those moments of shifting, as the episodes seem to take hold in the movement between deep sleep and light sleep. This is the time when the brain is sedated and still, so the person remembers nothing about the episode. But for people on the outside, a night terror episode can be terrifying.
People like this can:
- Flail their arms
- Engage in violent acts
- Sit up
- Stare into space
- Seem difficult to awaken
Night terrors like this can strike during childhood, when the brain is developing and the sleeper has little control over what takes place during the night. Nemours suggests that about three to six percent of kids have night terrors, and those that do are typically between ages four and 12. Often, when the teen years take hold, these episodes go away altogether.
But the Sleep Health Foundation suggests that they can take hold in adults, as about one to two percent of the adult population deals with this kind of sleep disorder.
People like this are under pressure, and they may show their tension only when they’re asleep.
Similarly, adults may have underlying health problems like sleep apnea, migraines or head injuries that could all trigger an episode of nighttime terrors. Illicit drug use or alcohol abuse has also been linked to an episode of night terrors in adults.
Common Treatment Approaches for Terrors
It’s rare to see night terrors manifest alongside a diagnosable mental illness, like anxiety or depression. According to experts, it doesn’t seem to be part of any one mental health syndrome. But night terrors could strike in people who have anxiety-based disorders, as these people are commonly experiencing a level of discomfort that’s been associated with sleep difficulties. Similarly, people who use stimulant drugs to help them deal with a mental illness might develop night terrors as they adjust to their medications. As a result, it’s not uncommon for Dual Diagnosis programs to include therapies that could assist people with night terrors. It might not be a common part of a mental health disorder, but those who have these conditions might certainly benefit from therapies that could help them to sleep through the night without screaming.
Often, therapies aim to deal with the underlying cause of the sleep disorder, and that might mean that medical teams get involved in the treatment program.
For example, a study in the journal Sleep found a link between disordered breathing during sleep and a night terror episode. The body had a spike of arousal when the person wasn’t breathing, and that spike was enough to trigger terror. By providing people like this with sleep apnea machines that keep the airways open at all times during the night, the apnea issue could be resolved and the accompanying terror might go away as well.
Night terror episodes triggered by alcohol use or drug use might similarly resolve when the addiction has been treated and the person no longer feels compelled to abuse drugs. If the reactions come about due to prescription medications used to treat a mental illness, the path to healing might be a little rockier, and therapists might need to tinker and customize for a longer period of time, but it could be quite helpful in allowing people to sleep comfortably without interruption.
It’s not easy to manage multiple health problems at once, but Dual Diagnosis treatment programs are designed to help you do just that. If you’d like to find out more about how you can find a treatment program for someone you love, please call.
Further Reading About Night Terror Disorder
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.