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Sunday, 12 January 2014

Night Terrors: What visits you in the dark?

[Picture: The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781]


Let's start this post with some scientific facts:

* Night terrors (or sleep terrors, as they are sometimes called) occur mostly in children. If a child is still suffering them by the time they reach their teens, it is more than likely they will continue to suffer from them well into adulthood. About 1% - 5% of children suffer from night terrors, whilst only 1% - 2% of adults.

* Scientific research has found that night terrors occur during Stage 4 of sleep, which is a deeper, non-dream phase of sleep when the brain should technically be "void" of any unnecessary activity. Night terrors cannot be nightmares, because nightmares occur during REM sleep, which is the dream phase of sleep. (To learn more about the stages of sleep, go here).

* A person who does not and has never had a night terror cannot "make" themselves have one. Although, there are certain factors believed to contribute to the likelihood of a night terror occurring for those susceptible to them (e.g. lack of sleep, caffeine, stress etc). However, the actual cause and reason for their occurrence remains unknown.

* Many sufferers cannot remember the details of their night terrors. However, for those that can, the most common thing they see is a dark, shadowy figure in the room.

* During a night terror, its sufferer's heart rate increases to a staggering 160 to 170 beats per minute. This is well above the rate expected for a "stressful" situation.

* A person suffering night terrors is not automatically assumed to have a psychological condition. In fact, most sufferers do not, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is the most common misdiagnosis.

It's been almost three months since my last night terror. Or, what I believe to be a night terror. I have no other explanation for it. I remember it clearly because it actually happened during the day, and it involved something that I'd not previously experienced during a terror: A grinning, partly decayed corpse lying in the bed next to me, in full, horrifying colour (thank you, daylight). Then, just as suddenly it had appeared, it was gone.

It was this terror that really got me thinking about the nature of night terrors, in particular how it is possible that modern science is unable to provide an explanation for their existence. I appreciate that there is a lot we still don't understand about the human brain. We know so many things, but there's even less we know about life after death.

I am one of the (un)lucky (haven't quite decided which) few who never "grew out" of night terrors. I've been getting them for as long as I can remember: I cannot pinpoint the moment they began, and I've never been able to determine a trigger. Stress or no stress; tired or well-rested; caffeine or no caffeine - they've just been there, always. They come and go as they please, and no two terrors are the same. 

I also remember them all, in minute detail. Whilst they are termed "terrors", I am not always afraid. My level of fear (or lack thereof) depends on the terror itself; it's "content", so to speak. As long as they keep their distance, I am in control, but I really don't like it when they touch.

My most common response during a night terror is one of curiousity; it watches me and so I watch it back. The logical part of my brain likes to tell me that what I am seeing simply isn't possible, but why then am I seeing it at all? If it happens more than once in a single night, or multiple nights in succession, my reaction turns into one of anger and frustration ("I'm trying to sleep, y'all!").

But this wasn't always the case. As a child the terrors would terrify me. Growing up on a farm we didn't have street lights filtering in through the windows at night. During those nights when there was no moon, it would be pitch dark - so dark you couldn't see what was right in front of you. I didn't have a night-light (I wasn't afraid of the dark, per se, I just didn't like what came with it). It was on those moonless nights when the terrors would be most frightening; when I'd know there was something in the room with me because I could hear it moving, making inhuman sounds. This was the most common terror I'd experience as a child, but it wasn't the only one.

As a teenager, the terrors began to change and become less subtle. I'd often see a large, dark, shadowy figure without legs come down from the ceiling and either hover above me, or skirt the edge of my bed. By this stage, however, I was becoming less frightened of these events and I would tell the creatures to go away, at which point they would either disappear before my eyes, or retreat back into the ceiling. 

Once they disappear there's a moment of clarity, followed by logic saying, "You must've been dreaming". The ardenaline can take awhile to subside; the heart a few more minutes to return to normal; the body a moment longer to relax. But, I have always found it surprisingly easy to go back to sleep after a terror.

I wasn't brought up to believe in ghosts. We didn't even tell ghost stories. My family were ardent church-goers, and for a long time I was convinced that the devil was trying to take me (what he wanted me for is anyone's guess!). 

As an adult who still suffers night terrors, I cannot help but wonder if there is a more profound reasoning for their existence than just the brain "misfiring" and creating random events. What if they're not random at all? If they are not a dream, and not a hallucination, then what are they? I can't help but wonder why so many experience very similar things in a night terror, and why it is that these dark shadow-figures insist on taking centre stage.

Is it possible that during the phase of sleep when our brain is empty, and we are at our most vulnerable, that we are able to see things beyond what we would normally see when completely awake and lucid? Perhaps a night terror is a small piece in the evidentiary puzzle of proving there is either life after death, or some kind of "spirit realm"? Could it be that the things we see in night terrors are not mere (unexplained) imaginings at all, but real beings, seen only when the veil between this world and the next slips and falls, revealing its secrets? 

I'll let you decide. Afterall, I'm still trying to figure it out for myself.
Do you suffer night terrors (or what may be construed as night terrors) too? What visits you in yours? 

Curious to know more about night terrors? Try these websites:


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