You can’t do much about night terrors, says Leschziner. For children, predictive waking sometimes works if you wake a child before they reach the point in their sleep cycle where the night terrors occur, thereby resetting their sleep pattern. This doesn’t work as well in adults, and in extreme cases, patients are given sleeping pills or antidepressants.
“It might be worth trying some acupuncture,” suggested my neurologist resignedly as I left. It felt like a desperate recommendation from someone used to fixing people, but on that occasion he was at a loss. “I can’t tell you how it works, or that we actually have data to suggest it actually works, but anecdotally I’ve heard good things.”
Because of this, I found myself a week later when I met Sarah, a local acupuncturist who was recommended by a good friend. I was nervous. I had spent my childhood running away from my father, a doctor who brought our routine vaccinations home to save us a visit to the practice. I hated needles.
But before they were brought out, I told her about my terrible nightly experiences. She carefully asked after my childhood if I had experienced anything that could have triggered these terrible dreams. I felt embarrassed describing an idyllic childhood with horses and sisters, the most traumatic part being when Tarzan, our hamster, escaped, presumably eaten by the cat next door.
But then I lay on her treatment table and took a deep breath as the needles were pulled out. They didn’t hurt, and she chatted calmly to me as she picked different spots, all over my body, my ankles and knees, my wrists and head, where she inserted and left needles. It was relaxing, if a little boring. I am certainly not a new woman, more like one who was even more cynical about alternative medicine.
But that night I slept as if someone had given me Valium, deep and apparently dreamless, woke up refreshed as I hadn’t for years. At first it felt too good to be true. But I started seeing Sarah weekly, and as each week went by, I was amazed to find that the night horror did not return.
I ask Leschziner if he, like me, believes that these magic needles could have miraculously solved my sleep problems. “It’s probably more about relaxing,” he explains. “Anxiety is certainly a factor, and in fact, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to improve sleep in general. One of the most effective things we can do is focus on being as relaxed as possible before bed, avoiding basic sleep hygiene that includes less caffeine, screens before bed, high adrenaline movies, or even books. “
Still, I am curious why I should become a victim of night terrors. Leschziner says it’s basically a brain malfunction and there seems to be a genetic predisposition to being able to enter this state where night terrors occur. I suddenly remember comforting my 11-year-old son this summer, who was scared after sleepwalking and finding himself in a strange room. “I thought I was kidnapped by aliens,” he told me in a trembling voice like before. Part of me wanted to laugh at the absurdity of his theory, but then I remembered how scared I had been all those years ago.
Leschziner stresses the importance of recognizing how real and scary these episodes can feel, but stresses the importance of children understanding that they are part of normal brain development. “Guide her gently back to bed,” he suggests, “and don’t remind her the next day.”
It feels good to talk about what made the night so terrible for so many years. Knowing that they can be triggered by disturbances like my husband’s loud snoring or my phone lying carelessly next to my bed – and that a good sleep routine could reduce their frequency.
It’s been 12 years since I first tried acupuncture and 12 years since it revolutionized my sleep. I no longer have weekly acupuncture appointments, but occasionally I wake up in despair – not on the order of my night terrors, but with palpitations and the feeling that something is wrong. At this point I will log into Sarah ASAP, and the moment I do it it’s like I’ve been reset, I’ll sleep peacefully again, those terrible nighttime demons are kept in check.