VIDEO: Insight looks at the unusual things some people do while they sleep – why does this happen and why do we no longer know how to deal with them?
For 25 years Adam Doran has been fighting in his sleep against shadowy, faceless figures that tower over him in his bed or lock him up in his bedroom.
And for 25 years his wife Julie Doran has been fighting him in her sleep without realizing that he is actually punching very real holes in her walls and windows in order to escape his imaginary tormentors.
“Nobody in our house gets up to go to the bathroom at night because we’re scared,” Julie told Kumi Taguchi on Insight.
Adam has night terrors – a kind of parasomnia, episodes in which part of the brain acts as if it were awake while people are actually sleeping and not knowing what they are doing. The sleep doctor Dr. David Cunnington explained that this can lead to all sorts of unusual behaviors such as walking, talking, running, eating, and screaming while you sleep.
When someone is terrified at night, “the fight / flight part of the brain that is involved in that fear response is very active … that leads to this behavior,” he said.
“Often times they are very unfiltered and raw, and it is quite common for people who are very calm, passive people during the day to be quite aggressive in their sleep.
“Her personality, her values are off, and what we have left is that raw reptilian fear part of the brain.”
Adam has had a sleep disorder for 25 years.
Parasomnias are not uncommon – at least two percent of adults experience them regularly. But both patients and experts told Insight that help is difficult to get, although the condition can be very debilitating for the person affected and anyone who sleeps nearby.
“I just wanted to fix it,” Julie said to Kumi. “We would visit someone and nothing would happen.”
Adam tried counseling, hypnotherapy, diet changes, and medication, but none of them ended his night terrors. Most doctors did not understand Adam’s condition and had no suggestions of other things to try.
The family doctor Dr. Brad McKay teaches other general practitioners training and admits that sleep disorders are not well understood by most medical practitioners.
“Pretty much everyone I’ve taught has no idea about it … it’s not doing well at all in medicine.” He said that most sleep specialists in Australia focus on respiratory problems like sleep apnea, so people with conditions like parasomnia have trouble to find someone who understands them.
“We’re just going to keep exploring because we have to,” said Julie. “Because we’re tired.”