ByDavid Latchman, writer at
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David Latchman
I can't move. I can't breathe. A sense of dread and panic washes over me as I realize, There’s someone here. It's pitch black in the middle of the night, and I'm getting yanked out of bed; something or someone is pulling my legs. I try to fight it, but I can't, nor am I able to come to full consciousness. I want to scream but no sound comes out of my mouth. This is it. I'm going to die tonight.

That quote comes from The Nightmare, a documentary about night terrors. If the description brings to mind one of the more terrifying experiences you can have while asleep, then you would be right. I know this from personal experience as I have had night terrors, also known as sleep paralysis, since I was a child and it is something that I experience to this day. Think of it as a personal visit from the bogeyman.

The documentary focuses on the experiences of eight people who suffer from sleep paralysis. Night terror is a sleep disorder that causes feelings of terror or dread, and typically occurs during the first hours of stage 3-4 non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Night terrors tend to occur when a person is aroused from delta sleep, or slow-wave sleep, the period when brain waves oscillate between 0 and 4 hertz with a high amplitude. This is the period during sleep when the brain consolidates recently formed memories. During the first half of the sleep cycle, delta sleep occurs most often, which may indicate that people with more delta sleep activity are more prone to night terrors.

EEG of Slow Wave Sleep highlighted in red.
EEG of Slow Wave Sleep highlighted in red.

Night terrors are not nightmares

Nightmares are dreams and occur during periods of rapid eye movement. This means that while the feelings of horror and dread might seem the same, night terrors occur less frequently; its prevalence have been estimated at 1%-6% among children, and less than 1% among adults. This makes what I have pretty rare.

My latest episode happened a few nights ago. In my dream, there was a knock on the door. I always look through the peephole before answering the door and it was pitch black outside. It was night time, I thought as I cursed myself and switched on the porch light. Though I could tell the light was on it was still dark outside and I could not see anything.

If this was a movie you would know by now, do not open the door. Do not go outside. The people who open doors and go outside die horribly. What do I do? I open the door. Something grabs me, and I react by trying a wrist lock; something I learned whilst training martial arts in the past. When I open my eyes, I am in my bed and there is a menacing figure over me. Even though I am trying to do something to fight this thing I can not move. At best, the wrist lock puts this entity and me in a stalemate.

I do eventually wake up. Whatever I saw was a trick of the mind created by a nearby pile of clothes. For me, most sleep terror episodes are like this; the looming figure is usually made up from something in the room. One time, one monster was a dress my girlfriend had hung by the door for an interview the next day. If anything, this has given me an appreciation of the tricks my own mind can conjure up to scare me.

While we have no idea why night terrors occur, there is some evidence it may be congenital; individuals frequently report other family members experiencing the same thing. No one in my family, that I know of, has experienced this indicating I am either a mutant or adopted. Maybe I need to investigate further.

There is also evidence to suggest that night terrors can result from lack of sleep or poor sleeping habits. In these cases, it can be helpful to improve the amount and quality of sleep the child is getting. I admit that recently, I have not been sleeping as I should and need to do a better job at that.

Can you make yourself wake up?

While some sufferers say they use certain techniques to bring themselves out of sleep paralysis, research indicates that does not work. All anyone can really do is wait it out, which can be difficult. The fear you feel coupled with lack of control makes things feel worse than it actually is.

So if you are in the 1% (not the bad 1%, just the ones whose mind hates you) there is really not much you can do about this other than relax, get a good night's rest, and tell yourself, "it's only a dream... it's only a dream."

'The Nightmare' is a 2015 documentary that is now available to watch on Netflix.


Do you suffer from sleep parylsis?


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