Living With Night Terrors

In the province of sleep problems, night terrors are terrifying. Doree Shafrir’s quest for relief included a cross-country move.

You’ve probably had your share of nightmares interrupting a sound sleep, but night terrors take scary sleep experiences to a whole new level. They can be absolutely frightening.

In 2012, Doree Shafrir, an executive editor for the web site BuzzFeed, chronicled her harrowing and ongoing experiences with night terrors, which started back in 2003. Night terrors are a kind of parasomnia, or sleep disorder, which happen during our slow wave sleep, said Robert S. Rosenberg, DO, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Centers of Prescott Valley and Flagstaff in Arizona. Night terrors occur in just 1 percent of adults and are somewhat more common in children.

A person experiencing a night terror, as opposed to a nightmare, which is considered a type of dream, may appear to be crying or screaming. “Their eyes are open, they look terrified, and they have a rapid heartbeat,” said Dr. Rosenberg.

Shafrir knows that feeling of terror firsthand. During the night, she has experiences vivid enough to believe that she needs $5,000 so desperately, she would die if she doesn’t get it;

that a woman had come to her apartment and took everything she owned; that someone was monitoring her breathing and that unless she held her breath and stayed still, she would die; and

that her walls, ceiling, and floors were closing in on her and could suffocate her.

If you have night terrors, you don’t always remember details about the experience. In fact, you may have amnesia or just have a vague idea of what happened, Rosenberg said. Still, it’s possible that you’ll run out of the bed and move around, which could cause other people to remember it for you.

More Night Terrors, More Sleep Problems

Shafrir’s night terrors seemed to be getting worse in 2010 during a stressful period in her life that included a break-up and a move. After reading that same year that Tobias Wong, a New York artist, had hanged himself in his sleep during a night terror, Shafrir decided to do more research. After some web browsing, she met with Wong’s partner and learned that some of Wong’s night terror actions were similar to hers, though his experiences were more violent.

She visited the New York Sleep Institute and met with a physician, then took part in an overnight sleep study. During the study, she was hooked up to an EEG machine and a breathing device, and a technician monitored her sleep. But she didn’t have any night terrors or sleep issues during the overnight visit.

Shafrir’s physician prescribed the anti-anxiety drug clonazepam (Klonopin) to help keep her in stage two sleep and avoid night terrors.

Clonazepam is one of several drugs used to help people with night terrors, said Rosenberg. “We try to look for the underlying sleep disorder causing night terrors,” he said. Sometimes, it’s sleep apnea; other times, it’s insufficient sleep. Clonazepam is often the first drug that sleep specialists turn to for night terror treatment, followed by antidepressant drugs, he added. But for Shafrir, the low dose of clonazepam didn’t stop the night terrors.

During research for her article, Shafrir found that even typical life stressors, like a break-up, can play a role in triggering night terrors.

Stress is sometimes indicated in research studies as a cause of night terrors, Rosenberg confirmed. “When you’re stressed, your body releases more cortisol, and you have more interrupted sleep. That may be why you see it more often when you are stressed,” he said.

As a result of the research for her article, Shafrir said she got better at waking herself up in the middle of a night terror. Since moving to Los Angeles in early 2013, her night terrors are less frequent. “It’s much calmer in Los Angeles than New York. I still occasionally get night terrors, but they have gone down in intensity,” she said.

Shafrir believes that her move to a quieter apartment in L.A. has made a difference and that sleep hygiene is important to help avoid night terrors. “I try to go to sleep at the same time every night, get a consistent amount of sleep, and cut down on nighttime drinking and eating,” she said.

“The takeaway message is to get people to have control over their sleep environment as much as they can.”

By Vanessa Caceres