Night terrors – a case study

Marianne* asked me if it would be okay if she brought her husband Robert* with her when she came to see me.  “The thing is”, she told me, “I’ve got no idea what it is I’m doing because I’m asleep through the whole thing.  It’s Robert really who’s there for it”.

What Marianne was talking about were her night terrors.  Night terrors aren’t, as some people think, a kind of nightmare.  In fact, they’re not even dreams, and they come on much earlier in our sleep.  And because they’re not dreams that means we’re still able to move about in response to them.

“She’ll sometimes just sit up in bed and scream,” Robert told me “but she’ll still be asleep.  I can’t rouse her, and she’ll be agitated and upset.  Sometimes she’s thrashing around or kicking, but if I try to hold or stop her she gets even worse.”

“It’s horrible to watch because I just can’t reach her.  Most times it’s less than a minute, but sometimes it’s been up to ten.  I end up feeling so helpless.”

Marianne looked upset.  “I just have a vague memory when I wake up the next morning.  But I feel so bad about ruining Robert’s sleep two or three nights every month.  I’ve kept a diary to see if I can find a trigger – something at work, or a food or drink, but I can’t see any pattern.  Can you help me sleep properly?”

Because night terrors aren’t nightmares there aren’t the triggers that there can be for disturbed dreams from certain events.  Instead the reasons behind night terrors, especially when people didn’t have them as children, tend to be related to wider lifestyle issues. 

A few questions about Marianne and Robert’s sleep told me that they were both under-slept and getting an average of five to six hours a night.  As with most sleep problems getting enough sleep will be a vital part of helping to make things better.  That also wasn’t helping Marianne deal with a stressful change at work, which in turn is a factor for night terrors.

There was another issue too though.  Robert told me that Marianne seemed to struggle for breath when she slept, seeming not to breath and then gasping for air.  Marianne then told me that she never felt properly rested, even after a lie-in, and that she was frequently sleepy during the day.

I asked Marianne to go to her doctor and discuss the possibility of sleep apneoa with them.  This is a condition where the windpipe closes during sleep, causing breathlessness and the person to then gasp for air.  It wasn’t just what they had both described, and Marianne’s recent weight gain, that led me to suspect sleep apnoea – it’s also recognised as a potential factor in adult night-terrors.

I helped Marianne to learn how to relax and deal with stress in a way that was better for her.  At the same time she saw the doctor about sleep apnoea, and started to lose the weight that she had put on.  And the night terrors?  They faded into the past, as suddenly as thy had first appeared.

*Marianne and Robert are happy to share their story, and their identity has been protected  

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