Many people view night terrors as a problem young children struggle with, but the sleep disorder affects adults too. Exact figures are difficult to come by, however experts estimate that 1-2% of the adult population are affected by sleep disorders, and approximately 100,000 of those are thought to experience some form of night terrors.
Night terrors are different to nightmares in that sufferers actively engage with their surroundings during an episode. Nightmares typically have complex narratives, while night terrors tend to revolve around more simplistic, primitive images such as an intruder in the room, the walls caving in or spiders running across the bed. Sufferers say the fear they experience during a night terror is more intense than any fear they have felt in real life.
This sleep disorder is more common in children, and in most cases they simply grow out of them. Some people however continue to live with them in their adult life. Dr Ian Smith, the director of the sleep centre at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, says the condition is often genetic and may be linked to sleepwalking and sleep talking.
“They occur when people are aroused out of deep sleep, when your memory’s inactive. It may be triggered by some subconscious worry from the daytime getting through, or it may be a loud noise, or people who are prone to this could be set off by pauses in their breathing.”
Dr Smith goes on to explain that to the outside observer, the person having the night terror will appear incredibly scared and sweaty. Their heart rate and blood pressure will increase for a few minutes before they fall back to sleep. While some people will recall their terrors, others will have no recollection the following day.
Currently there is very little in terms of research, however Dr Smith remains optimistic about finding a cure for the condition. He explains that he believes it is caused by a physical problem that interacts with the environment. The fact that it runs in families suggests a chemical cause within the genes, meaning that it may be able to be manipulated chemically too.