To sleep, perchance to dream
May 18, 2007 11:55 PM   Subscribe

Why would I start having night terrors all of a sudden?

I've been to a sleep clinic, and the terrors did not materialize that night, so they have no solutions for me. I don't actually need a solution, I need an answer.

Why now? The terrors literally came out of NOWHERE about a year ago. It took me a few times to realize that I was ASLEEP during them. Each time, what has calmed me is my SO shaking me awake. Before that happens, I scream really loudly, and am absolutely terrified. Sometimes I punch at the air, or throw a pillow. Even after I'm awakened, I shake badly and sometimes I have to get up and "wait out" a weird sensation of dread before I can go back to sleep.

They are infrequent, maybe every month to two months, but they come in clusters. I'll do fine for a couple months, forget all about it, and wham, there I am, screaming at the top of my lungs, flailing at "ghosts" with all my might. Then I have two or three that week, then they go away again.

I just don't understand what could have happened to bring them on. I'm 50 and never had this problem until now. I have gained weight, about ten pounds. I'm overweight, have been for a years, but with this last weight gain, I also began to snore really badly occasionally as well. Again, that is also infrequent. At the sleep clinic they said I didn't have apnea. That I maybe woke up 6 times an hour and moved my legs a little each hour too, but nothing drastic.

I have suffered from insomnia my whole life, and it comes and goes in cycles. In these later years, I am less prone to it, having settled down into married gay life, gotten on good meds, and had some great therapy.

So, those are the details. Anyone have any undertsanding of why such a weird sleep disturbance would start so late in one's life? Does anyone know what CAUSES night terrors? By that I mean, what sort of bio-mechanical-chemical thing goes on in the brain to make it happen, not a "maybe the ghosts are real and trying to reach you" kind of explanation.

I want to go to bed and go to sleep but my SO is out of town for the weekend and I had two night terrors this week. I'm afraid to go through one without her here.
posted by generic230 to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Well, wikipedia has a very informative article on sleep paralysis, which seems very similar to what you're getting mentally, but perhaps not physically.

Sleep paralysis is $&*#ing awful, and scary as hell- it has the same 'not knowing it's not real' thing you talk about.

I started having what you describe, but it was accompanied by feeling like I was frozen with fear. I'd just moved apartments- but it didn't happen too often- about the same regularity as what you've said, and they came out of nowhere.

I tried to avoid sleeping on my back (it never happened when I was lying on my stomach or side) and I tried to get a more regular sleep schedule.

They stopped for the most part, and regarding the cause-- for me it was the dreamy/hallucinatory state, where I was becoming lucid, mixing with my body still being pretty much asleep. The instant I thought I was awake, but without control of my body, and still with dreamy hallucinations- the hallucinations became terrifying. So I guess the paralysis would lead to panic, and the panic would turn dreams into nightmares. It would take a long time to calm down to a normal state of mind where I could once again discern what rally happened from the nightmare.

So I think that sleeping on my back was pretty much the only factor I directly linked to the night terrors. Being able to see the foot of my bed also seemed to be linked, so I'd cover my head with another pillow. I hope one of those works for you. Good luck.
posted by conch soup at 12:18 AM on May 19, 2007

Brain tumors?
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 12:32 AM on May 19, 2007

My mom notes that she only gets sleep paralysis when she falls asleep and is really overtired. I seem to get it when I know I need to be waking up soon, say to make a phone call or do something important, but of course I can't wake up... I need something to wake me. I often wish I could have an alarm detect when I'm in that state and wake me.

Perhaps a mild sleeping pill that is designed to help you stay asleep will work? It might wind you down enough.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:12 AM on May 19, 2007

I remember reading something – not sure how serious it was – about overheating while sleeping causing nightmares. The body reacts, and wakes you up so you can remove what is keeping you too warm. Your extra weight could be making it more difficult to evacuate heat. Is your bedroom cool enough?
posted by stereo at 1:14 AM on May 19, 2007

What Stereo said just reminded me of an article I read about people who sleep with TVs on in their rooms having more nightmares because of the flashing light. You might want to make sure it's good and dark in your room and there's no streetlight coming in.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:43 AM on May 19, 2007

I get sleep paralysis only when I'm extremely overtired (so basically that hasn't happened since school), and I get night terrors only when I have a fever (which basically hasn't happened since I was a child). So from my personal experience, any physical "oddness" can bring it on. Change in weight or medication sound like flags to me.
posted by iguanapolitico at 4:21 AM on May 19, 2007

With the weight gain, you probably have developed sleep apnea. Hie thee to a doctor.
posted by Malor at 4:24 AM on May 19, 2007

Sorry, I didn't see that you'd been tested for apnea. Are you sure? That sounds exactly like an apnea. Weight gain leading to night terrors is classic for those symptoms.

One way you can test this is by forcing yourself to sleep on your side/stomach. The easy way to do that is to to sew some drink cans onto the back of a nightshirt.
posted by Malor at 6:25 AM on May 19, 2007

Night terrors might come about after a traumatic incident (either recent or in the distant past). The traumatic incident could be something that your conscious mind dismisses as no problem, or only a temporary problem--for example, after a bad fall that knocks the wind out of you.

I've also heard that those who have suffered from child abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual) sometimes don't start processing it until they're older and feel safer in their lives, and one of the ways it comes out is in night terrors.

Sorry this isn't a scientific explanation, but you might consider a session or two with a counsellor.
posted by purplesludge at 6:34 AM on May 19, 2007

I have a friend who gets night terors if his head is too close to an electrical outlet. You might want to check your bed and see if there are any outlets near where you lay your head.
posted by Irontom at 9:50 AM on May 19, 2007

If you've always been a comfort eater, even though you may be currently happy and settled because you're putting the 'something is wrong' weight on the night terrors feel they should accompany.

For me,
Unhappy = Mess therefore,
Mess = Unhappy.

Perhaps something along the lines of

X = Weight + Night Terrors

is the case for you and you associate them with each other.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 1:38 PM on May 19, 2007

One guess that hasn't yet been mentioned is that they might be a side effect of your med cocktail, which is presumably a psych med cocktail.

Hard to know. Takes a good doc to sort this kind of thing out.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:31 PM on May 19, 2007

(SO feels I may have been too brief)
For me when I'm unhappy my house is really messy so when it's really messy but I'm fine I start feeling really odd and then I begin to be unhappy. Because well I must be unhappy because there is a mess.

So my line of thought was if something ( X ) was the cause of both your weight gain and previous insomnia/night terrors (i/nt). Even though now there's no dramas with X so no need for i/nt but the weight is there so subconsciously (and hence why i/nt now manifests only as dreams) it's being added for you.

I may be drawing inferences left right and center. SO's thoughts can be summed as what minute insignificant thing has changed. And we both hope your Dr can confirm MonkeySaltedNuts should go easy on the Monkeys
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 8:02 PM on May 19, 2007

I have night terrors which started when I was a young teenager (about 12), and progressively worsened until I was in my late 20s. They've settled down to a couple of times a month.

Like you, they come in waves -- one week I'll have none, the next, three or four.

Here's what I've found:
1. Stress makes them worse.
2. Exercise and good sleep habits make them better.
3. Sleeping in a new place makes them worse.
4. Sleeping pills may stop them from occuring - but I don't want to take sleeping pills.

My weight, electrical outlets, etc, have no difference. I also do not have sleep apnea, and I am normal weight.

From what I know, night terrors can run in families and so there seems to be some sort of genetic or physiological basis for them for many people.

I recently saw a documentary about it and some scientists were hypothesising that the cause for night terrors was that for the brains of sufferers aren't as good at forcing our bodies to become paralysed during sleep. Therefore, during our deep sleep dreams, our bodies react as if we were still somewhat awake. In short - everyone has nightmares, but for those of us with night terrors, our bodies try to act out what's happening in our own heads. That's why night terrors and sleep-walking and sleep-talking seem to be releated.

However, for you, the offset of the night terrors could be related to some stressful incident and I wouldn't rule out sleep apnea or some other physical cause.

But really -- there isn't a great deal of understanding about night terrors and what causes them and how to fix them, and I've just come to the conclusion I will always have them and my partner just has to live with them too as part of the wonderful package deal that is our relationship.
posted by jasperella at 8:02 PM on May 19, 2007

posted by BrotherCaine at 11:47 PM on May 19, 2007

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