As the ceiling began to collapse around me, I grabbed the hand that waved to me from above. I screamed as I tried to grasp my Savior’s fingertips too distant for fear of being buried alive.
When my roommates woke me up, my heart was still beating fast as I grabbed the center beam of the cabin we shared, my body hanging maybe two feet from the floor. It was the summer of 2009 and we were at Yosemite for a family reunion – a family I would marry into a few years later. I shared the room with two other young women I didn’t know well and made a great impression.
When I was hanging from the ceiling, one of them held my waist while the other turned on the light. When everything came back into focus, I knew immediately that I was in no danger. Embarrassed about my nightly play, I dropped the beam and hurried back to bed.
The three of us burst out laughing in shock.
Experts may disagree on what I’ve experienced, but I’ve always referred to these types of episodes as night horrors.
Horror of the night
Night terrors are more than just a nightmare, they are characterized by intense panic. The victim will often scream and beat about for a period of a few minutes to an hour, which can often startle people around them.
The episodes are more common in children, but are estimated 2 percent of the adult population is also affected. I’ve experienced night terrors (or something like that) my entire life, though they’re usually not as dramatic as my booth episode.
However, after telling California sleep doctor Kimberly Truong about this particular event, she told me that my experience did not quite match the definition of night horror. “What you’re describing mixes up with two different things,” she says.
In a classic night horror, the sufferer usually doesn’t remember a dream associated with their actions, she explains. Barring a few blows, night terrorists tend to stay there. “More complex behaviors – climbing – actually invade the world of parasomnia,” says Truong.
Parasomnias are defined as disorders that cause unusual behaviors while sleeping. These include night terrors, but sleepwalking, sleep talking, sleep eating, and even sleep sex are also different forms of parasomnias.
Sleep well – or not
Night terrors are known to occur during a phase of sleep known as N3. This is a deep, dreamless sleep that occurs about half an hour to an hour after you fall asleep. This sleep phase repeats itself throughout the night – but the longest time occurs during the first sleep cycle, which is why most night terrors occur in the first half of the night. It is also known that children have more N3 stages, which is why night terrors are more common in adolescents.
From studying brain waves during sleep, doctors know that adults who suffer from night terrors experience a “micro-awakening” in two parts of the brain, says Truong. One section is the motor cortex that is responsible for movement; the cingulate cortex, which helps regulate emotions, is the other.
These small excitements are caused by a variety of factors, from breathing disorders – namely sleep apnea – to psychological problems like anxiety. As is well known, alcohol and other drugs also play a role.
Sleep deprivation can also trigger night terrors because when the body is overtired, it will dive into a replenishing N3 phase more quickly and stay there longer, notes Truong.
Why so scared?
While certain night terrors triggers have been identified, so much remains to be understood – such as the best treatments and why, for some, they extend into adulthood.
It is a source of frustration but also one of intrigue for those who study it. “We don’t learn much in medicine these days,” says Truong. “We know so much about the heart; We know so much about the brain [and] the lungs at the cellular level. But sleep is actually still a big mystery and I find that really fascinating. “
Since night terrors are rare in adulthood, they may have a stigma attached to them. Shavaughn Ulven from Minnesota wants to change that. “My friends are joking or saying, ‘Oh, this is just a nightmare’ or ‘You’re growing up, you’ll get over it,’” says Ulven.
Ulven, 31, has lived with regular night terrors all her life – she experiences them an average of four nights a week. Typically they manifest as the classic sit-up-in-bed-and-scream variant. But they can also get more involved.
In one of those more memorable episodes, Ulven broke his nose.
“I just ran out of bed, out of the bedroom, and instead of racing down a hallway, I ran right into a wall,” she said. “I literally had to wake my daughter up and take her to the emergency room so I could get my nose fixed.”
In an effort to bring night terrorists together, Ulven founded one Support group on Facebook in 2014. With more than 500 participants from all over the world, the group offers night terrorists a safe space to share coping mechanisms, treatment options or just to vent.
Ulven herself has received a variety of medically prescribed treatments and therapies for her night terrors, but they haven’t gone away. Also, sleep studies always turn out normal because she never manages to experience a night terrors when she takes the test. Today she manages to sleep with a little light so that she can orientate herself more quickly. Her doctors have told her not to take any medication unless she injures herself again or someone else.
Despite what we don’t know, Truong and Ulven both urge those affected to see a doctor about their parasomnias – especially if they put themselves at risk.
“Some people wake up in the forest and don’t even know how they got there,” says Ulven. “This can be a very serious condition and it can lead to unwanted injury. This can lead to death. ”