A night terror, sleep terror or pavor nocturnus is a sleep disorder, causing 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 happen during periods of arousal from delta sleep, also known as slow-wave sleep. During the first half of a sleep cycle, delta sleep occurs most often, which indicates that people with more delta sleep activity are more prone to night terrors. However, they can also occur during daytime naps.
The first night terror I remember having was when I was about 7 years old or so. My mom and I lived with my grandparents and my grandfather worked away from home for a few weeks at a time. When he was home after a long trip, he would usually let me fall asleep in his bed while he sat in his chair nearby and read. On one particular night, I remember waking up and seeing my grandpa sitting his armchair thumbing through his Treasure Hunting magazine. I also remember looking at the doorway and seeing a very large lizard, about the size of an iguana, dart inside the room and scurry under the bed. It was so real to me that I sat up, pointed and yelled that there was a lizard under the bed. There was no reason for me to believe there wasn’t, as I had definitely seen it. The whole family searched the entire room. No lizard.
The next night terror I remember was of candy wrappers flying out of the air conditioning vent and piling up on the floor below. That one was a bit more extraordinary, as I knew there was no way that candy wrappers had gotten into our ventilation system. I remember watching them flutter to the ground while thinking “this can’t be happening.”
As I got older, my Night Terrors involved ants covering the bed, spiders, and various odd things such as the candy wrappers. I always remember a feeling of intense panic when the terror involves something scary, but if it is something non-threatening, I am more curious than afraid. That’s if I remember them at all. When I was a teenager, my mom would often tell me that I had a Night Terror the day after I had one, and I would have no recollection of it. As an adult, I have found that my Night Terrors are decreasing. I usually have one every other month or so, on average, compared to every other week or more when I was younger.
As anyone with Night Terrors knows, these are not dreams and are very distinguishable from them. When I have a Night Terror (one that I remember), I usually wake to a loud sound, like a Chinese gong, inside my head. I will know that this sound sort of “announces” that I am having a Night Terror. At this point my eyes are still closed and I think to myself “I wonder what I’m going to see when I open my eyes?” I have found that whatever things that I do see will fade as quickly as the light is turned on. I have also found that the shapes of apparitions that I see can be easily explained as a fold in a sheet resembling a spider, or my treadmill’s handlebars being the horns of a bull.
With the internet, I was able to research what was happening to me and was able to quickly identify it as being Night Terrors. No one knows or understands why some children have Night Terrors, or why some people continue to have them into adulthood. From my personal experiences I would offer a few theories:
1. Most people I have known that experience true Night Terrors are the more “creative” types. (ex: they could easily see the general shape of a spider in the shadows of a fold in a sheet.)
2. Most people remember some of their Night Terrors and can recognize the difference between a Night Terror and a Nightmare.
3. I find that my Night Terrors increase if I haven’t had enough sleep or if I am under pressure.