Night terrors: In my wildest dreams

Leonie Roderick suffers from such severe night terrors that she once tried to climb out of her bedroom window while asleep. She set out to learn more about this frightening condition

The walls are closing in on me. The air is sucked out of my lungs and everything turns black. One thought pulses through my mind – to get out of the room, no matter how. I push open my window and start climbing out. Only when the fresh air hits me do I realise something's not right. I fall backwards and crawl back into bed, confused and disorientated by my surroundings.

This was the most dangerous night terror I suffered during my final year at university. I initially forgot what had happened, until I saw the chaos the next morning – my desk and chair were overturned, my books had been knocked off my bedside table and my laptop's screen had smashed. The window was still wide open.

Deep bruises came up a day after, with the right-hand side of my body turning black and blue. My GP practically laughed me out of the surgery when I went in for a consultation. "There's nothing I can do about it, it happens in your sleep," he said, smiling. It was only once I had moved to London and suffered a similar attack that left me bleeding that I decided I'd had enough. After a three-month wait, I finally managed to get a space in one of the UK's busiest sleep clinics for an overnight study.

The technicians wired me up at the clinic at London Bridge. There were 10 sensors attached to my head alone, with countless cables running down my body. Lying on the bed, monitored by two cameras, I knew that I wouldn't be having a night terror that night. But I was hopeful that the results might shed some light on my condition.

When someone suffers from a night terror, they can scream, shout and thrash around in extreme panic, sometimes jumping out of bed. It's an unnerving experience for anyone to watch – the sufferer's eyes will be open, but they're not fully awake or aware of what they're doing. Once the panic subsides, the person will fall back asleep, oblivious to the chaos.

Most people experience nightmares or night terrors growing up. Figures show that between 20 and 30 per cent of children between the ages of five and 12 have frequent nightmares, while night terrors affect 17 per cent of children. Once children reach adulthood, incidence rates are much lower, with only one in 20 of that 17 per cent still reporting night terrors in later life. But recent research has linked recurring night-time problems to more ominous long-term consequences. A study conducted by the University of Warwick followed nearly 6,800 children up to the age of 12. The results suggest that long-term sufferers of nightmares and night terrors have a higher risk of mental health problems as they enter adolescence. Those having nightmares aged 12 were three-and-a-half times more likely to have problems and the risk was nearly doubled by regular night terrors.

Psychology professor Dieter Wolke led the research at Warwick. He says that while children often experience night-time problems, in adults, it's only around 1 to 2 per cent who still have night terrors. When they persist into adulthood, the physical risks also increase. "Night terrors become more dangerous, as you're larger and more mobile. People are known to have fallen off balconies or thrown themselves out of windows," says Professor Wolke.

From a young age, I have been a restless sleeper, but the night terrors only started happening when I entered my teens. It wasn't until university that they became more severe. The more extreme ones saw me running around the house or frantically trying to open my bedroom window.

So why do night terrors occur? According to Dr Nicholas Oscroft, a respiratory physician at Papworth Hospital, genetics and not getting enough sleep could be to blame. "It does seem to run in families... From previous research it has become clear that night terrors happen more often if people don't get enough sleep on a regular basis. Work or family-related stress also increases the risk."

Another sufferer is 24-year-old Kevin Stone. He started having night terrors from the age of seven. He believes it's because of having lived in South Africa, where his family experienced regular break-ins. His night terrors follow a repeated theme – someone is always trying to chase or kill him. "I once dreamt that people had broken into the house and were in my room. They made me get out of bed and kneel on the floor while I tried to convince them not to kill me. When I have a night terror, I act out everything. I can hear their voices, I can see them, I can even feel the gun against my head."

Stone's night terrors took a gruesome turn when he was 18. One night, he woke up and was convinced someone had broken into the house. As a result, he jumped out of his bedroom window and fractured his spine and broke both his ankles. "I realised what I was doing just before I hit the ground." Terrified by what his sleeping mind was capable of, he sought treatment to stop his night terrors from happening. But he believes that his problems can't be solved, because it's all in his mind. "Doctors have said to keep a bedtime journal to clear my mind, but that hasn't worked." He also wasn't happy with the option of being prescribed antidepressants.

So can night terrors be solved? Dr Oscroft seems unsure. "Adult patients who suffer from them need to try and reduce how often it happens. The best way to achieve this is by getting enough sleep. People should also optimise their sleeping environment, so that they won't be woken up during the first two hours of sleep, which is when night terrors are most likely to occur."

Night terrors can put a strain on relationships. Dr Oscroft says the best thing to do when someone is suffering from a night terror is to reassure them. "People who are having a night terror will be agitated, so the best thing to do is to calmly talk to them until they wake up. Don't try to restrain them unless they are in danger of hurting themselves."

My results from the sleep clinic proved surprising. I had woken up four times during the night – flustered and disorientated. Even though there was no physical cause, I do suffer from slow wave arousal disorder, which is usually associated with sleepwalking and other sleeping disorders. Aside from the advice to sleep more or to take sleeping pills, my diagnosis remains unchanged. I suspect that it will be something I'll have to deal with on a regular basis throughout my life. Until they stop completely, I'll be keeping my bedroom window firmly locked.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Buddy DeFranco
people
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

    £32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

    £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

    Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

    £25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

    Day In a Page

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones