It is not just children who are plagued by dreams and nightmares. They happen to many adults and are common in people recovering from addiction. This is because when we sleep we dream, and in our dreams we open a door to the ghosts and demons that haunt us from our past.
Nightmares are common for trauma victims. Whether they are caused by child physical or sexual abuse or adult combat stress, the nightmares can be viscous and disruptive. They can become so disturbing that people fear falling asleep. The fear of falling asleep can combined with other factors to create insomnia, which in turn can result in sleep deprivation.
Night terrors are the most intense form if nightmares. We wake up sweating, and shaking. Our bodies and brains are reacting as if we were threatened with death or worse. It can take awhile to shake off a night terror. We awaken sweating and trembling as a result of high adrenaline levels.
We all pass through a state of twilight sleep as we wake up. During twilight sleep we experience hypnogogia. We see strange images shifting and changing in our minds. We can also find it difficult to move and feel frozen or paralyzed for a few moments. It can be like a bad acid trip. It is especially frightening if we don’t know what is happen and that it is a common experience.
Hypnogogic episodes occur in most people almost every morning. Most are mild, not terrifying, or even pleasant. We awaken, and like dreams themselves, the hypnogogic experience rapidly fades from awareness. We forget about them and then we forget that we forgot. In other words, the memory of the hypnogogic experience does not store in long-term memory.
Hypnagogia and night terrors, however, are a terrible combination. Dreams of unresolved traumatic events emerge in the form of intense hypnogogic imagery that is related to real memories. The autonomic nervous system responds as as if the trauma is occurring again.
The hypnagogic state distorts and amplifies the dream. The images seem teal, but in a surreal way. We awaken and the brain records the intense memory of the night terror to long-term memory.
As with other memories, sensory cues and triggers can activate memories that intrude into consciousness and can break our attention and concentration when we are trying to focus on other things.
Knowing what is happening is an important first step in learning to manage night terrors and the symptoms that can follow us into the waking world. Keeping the night terrors a secret usually makes them worse. Learning to understand and accept them is the best way to prevent or reduce the frequency and severity of the night terrors and related secondary reactions of shame, guilt, and feelings of being “crazy.”
Knowledge can truly be the power to recover.