What It's Like To Be Plagued By Night Terrors: 'I'm Paralysed And I Can't Scream'

The sleep disorder is commonly known to affect children, but 2% of adults also suffer.
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“I wake up and look around the room, but I hallucinate and see a shadow figure of a man,” says 28-year-old Ali Strick. “The man will either stand in the corner or at the foot of my bed for a while. Then he will move over to me and try to get on top of me or strangle me.

“I genuinely feel like I’m awake at the time and this is really happening. I am paralysed and I can’t scream. But when my heart starts racing and I take a deep breath, I wake up and realise they were never there.”

Ali, from London, says these sleep terrors only ever happen when she’s stressed. She has mentioned the issues in therapy, but has never explicitly sought help from a sleep specialist. “It goes away if I manage to de-stress myself,” she adds.

Sleep terrors are part of a group of sleep disorders - sleep-walking and sleep paralysis included - classified under parasomnia. According to Dr Irshaad Ebrahim, medical director of The London Sleep Centre, they are common in childhood and tend to disappear as the brain matures, but for 2% of the adult population these issues remain.

Ali Strick
Ali Strick

Dr Ebrahim says sleep terrors occur within the first one to two hours of sleep, during non rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep. They tend to affect a person’s behaviour and the way they feel, so those experiencing terrors might scream or sleep-talk. According to The London Clinic they will likely become agitated, with thrashing, flailing limbs, or even sleepwalking away from their bed to ‘escape’. There are also physiological signs such as increased heart rate, sweating, rapid breathing, dilated pupils and shaking.

Sleep terrors can be triggered by being sleep-deprived or jet-lagged. But the single biggest trigger is stress and not coping with stress properly, which is why treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help.

Christabel Majendie, cognitive behavioural therapist and in-house sleep expert at Naturalmat, says everyone’s night terrors are different, however two common experiences are for those in it to feel as though there is someone or something in the room with them, or to feel paralysed.

Jodie Smith*, 27, from London says her night terrors are always animal-related: “I’ll be completely convinced that this animal is in the bedroom with me. I’ve had snakes in the bed, spiders under the pillow, a fox at the end of the bed poised to pounce.

“I will ‘wake up’ in a kind of lucid sleep state where my mind is still in the dream but I’m moving around the room and talking as if I’m awake - and I’ll be screaming or jumping out of bed, absolutely terrified.”

Jodie’s terrors, which she’s been experiencing for 2-3 years now, are almost always caused by stress. “I went through one particularly stressful time with work and personal life and was getting them every night,” she explains. “I haven’t had any for a while now - I’m in a really good place.

“If anything, it has made me more self-aware of managing my stress levels. To see the impact I was having on my own mind in such a clear way was a wake-up call to stop putting myself under so much pressure.”

Katie Taylor
Katie Taylor

Katie Taylor, 30, has experienced sleep terrors since she was a toddler. When she was younger there didn’t appear to be a trigger, however now it’s almost always when she’s rundown, ill or stressed. Unlike the others, her night terrors come hand-in-hand with sleep paralysis, a temporary inability to move or speak that occurs when waking up or falling asleep.

Katie, who is from Lancashire, explains: “Once awake in a night terror, the fun can begin. Solidly paralysed, there are people in the room bearing down on me. It’s usually a group of shadows that I know are people, just standing around the bed. It can last about half an hour and usually stops when one at the foot of the bed comes too close and I freak out and break out of the paralysis ‘spell’.”

Dr Ebrahim says if your sleep terrors persist they need to be looked into as they can be caused by underlying health issues such as sleep apnoea. If properly investigated, they can be treated with therapy or medication.

Majendie adds: “Other ways that can be useful in dealing with these types of sleep disorders is to adjust your nighttime routine, so to go to bed earlier and have a relaxing bath before bed using some essential oils such as lavender, chamomile, rose or sandlewood. These types of oils can usually help send a person into a deeper sleep.”