A colleague asked to refer me a young lady who had gone to college this year and was awakening her roommates screaming during what was known as her night terrors. She would go to sleep for a few hours, then awaken screaming and panicky, could not be consoled by her roommates and then return to sleep. In the morning, she would have no memory of these awakenings or the things that had scared her into screaming. This was happening several times a week, causing those around her to lose considerable sleep themselves. Friends would sometimes be concerned for her safety because of what she might try to do while in this seemingly awake state. Her parents were not surprised because they had experienced much the same thing with her during her last two years of high school. Things were getting to the point where she might have to move out of the dorm when the colleague came to talk to me about it.
Similarly, parents of young children have often experienced such disturbances when a screaming younger child awakens the household but remembers nothing of their “nighttime adventure” in the morning. It is customary for most kids to outgrow such sleep events, usually by the time they start elementary school. But there are always a small number of kids who continue to have such terrifying “nightmares” that the pediatrician becomes involved. Often, children with these problems are referred to a psychologist and the family becomes involved in family therapy to find the source of what’s ailing the child. But wait! Is this a psychological problem? Or is the culprit something that’s amiss in the sleep patterns?
My colleague went on to recount having seen just such a nine year old, whose terrified screaming was so intense that the family had to leave the campground where they were staying and cut short the family vacation, both to calm the child, but more so the frayed nerves of fellow campers. And this family had been in therapy for several months, trying to identify the source of the problem. Eventually, the “source” of the problem was found when the pediatrician suggested a specialist pediatrician, who did an overnight sleep study and found breathing problems during sleep that were awakening the child in a stage of sleep where he should have been soundly asleep, but not able to dream. Problem solved when identified. It never happened again once treated.
What’s going on here? These events are part of a group of sleep disorders called Parasomnias, and unlike their sleep companion – nightmares, which are often well-remembered, sleep terrors are distinguished by the fact that the person is intensely panicky (complete with rapid heart rate, breathing and sweating) and later remembers nothing of what has occurred. Typically, this happens in the first half of the night (unlike nightmares) and during Stage 3-4 deep, slow wave sleep. Thus, diagnosis and treatment are the purview of neurology, psychiatry and psychology. Medications can be helpful once a careful diagnosis can be established and other sleep and neurological disorders have been ruled out.
Get the best help you can find for anything that happens during the night, and be sure your professional, of whatever discipline, has specific training in sleep-related disorders, not just psychological disorders.
“A good night’s rest feeds the mind as good food nourishes the body.”