Waking nightmares: Heart pounding. Frozen with fear. Unable to even scream. The little-known condition millions are suffering from
By Alison Smith-squire
Published: 23:35 GMT, 30 July 2012 | Updated: 23:35 GMT, 30 July 2012
Lying in her bed in the middle of the night, Elizabeth Earle woke with a start to see a menacing dark shadow in the corner of her room.
Heart pounding in her ears, she tried to scream.
But when she tried to open her mouth, it was impossible.
'Some nights I was going through eight hours of hell. And often the next day I was shattered because I'd been unable to sleep,' said Elizabeth Earle
She was unable to utter a sound — in fact, to her horror she found herself paralysed and unable to move.
Finally after what seemed an eternity, but was probably no more than a few minutes, she found herself able to move again.
When she looked, the menacing dark shadow had disappeared.
This is a typical example of the constant nightmares that have haunted Elizabeth, a teaching assistant from Nuneaton, Warwickshire, for the past decade.
‘Afterwards I often have to get up, put the light on and walk round to calm myself down,’ says Elizabeth, 23.
‘But even then I am often too frightened to go back to sleep.
‘In fact, sometimes I have to wait until the sun comes up.
'It’s only then, with daylight seeping through the curtains, that I feel safe enough to doze off.’
Sleep paralysis is generally a night-time phenomenon
Elizabeth is one of millions who suffer from a terrifying sleep disorder called sleep paralysis, which causes you to partially wake up during a dream, while your body is still ‘asleep’.
It’s also dubbed Old Hag syndrome — because, according to folklore, an old hag would sit on a sleeper’s chest, causing shortness of breath and an inability to move, sending nightmares to him or her.
It is estimated up to 60 per cent of us will experience sleep paralysis at least once, with 5 per cent suffering from repeated episodes, often nightly, for six months or even longer.
Not only is the condition extremely disturbing, it can rob people of their sleep, causing exhaustion and concentration problems.
‘Sleep paralysis occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep or dream sleep,’ says sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley.
During a period of REM sleep, which lasts for around five to 15 minutes and is repeated roughly every 90 minutes throughout the night, the brain turns off most of the body’s muscle function, temporarily paralysing you so you cannot act out a dream, he explains.
‘In sleep paralysis, the person wakes up but the transition between sleep and waking up fully isn’t as smooth as it should be.
'They begin to wake up and may sometimes even be able to partially open their eyes, but find themselves unable to move.
'At the same time they are still dreaming.
‘The paralysis only lasts for a few seconds or minutes but can be terrifying because the victim may experience vivid hallucinations.’
Adrian Williams, professor of sleep medicine and consultant at the London Sleep Centre and Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital, adds: ‘As the person has partially woken up the hallucinations can feel very real.
'They often involve hearing, or seeing ghosts or other menacing figures.
‘Some sufferers even feel they are being touched, sat on, or pulled off the bed.’
Many sufferers believe they are being haunted or that the dreams are a premonition that something bad such as a death is about to strike.
‘Although they are a completely normal phenomenon, they can cause the sufferer lots of worry,’ says Professor Williams.
‘In fact, sufferers often don’t tell people due to fears they will be ridiculed.
'But the condition can have a huge impact on sleep and lead to insomnia and tiredness.’
Sleep paralysis is generally a night-time phenomenon, and not something people suffer during an afternoon nap, for example, because you must be asleep for at least 70 to 120 minutes first to get into REM sleep.
Anything that disrupts the sleep pattern can result in an episode — including stress, shift work, jet lag and some medications, illnesses and even too much alcohol or caffeine.
Not only sleep paralysis extremely disturbing, it can rob people of their sleep, causing exhaustion and concentration problems
‘Even your partner snoring next to you can precipitate an attack if your REM sleep is interrupted and you wake up during dream sleep,’ says Dr Stanley. However, they can also appear to strike out of the blue and attack at any age.
In those who suffer frequent episodes of sleep paralysis, it’s thought there may be an inherited tendency, as the condition tends to run in families.
Elizabeth is not aware of any sleep paralysis in her family, and believes for her it was sparked by a family tragedy in November 2000 which severely affected her sleep.
‘I had my first attack when I was 11, following the death of my cousin Jonathon,’ she says.
‘The day before his 18th birthday party, he and four other friends were killed in a car crash.
'We were incredibly close and it had a huge impact on the whole family.’
She immediately started to suffer nightmares about Jonathon
‘At first they were just disturbing dreams. But as I got into my teens they got worse,’ she recalls.
‘I felt as though there were dark forces waiting for me as I slept.’
By the time Elizabeth went to university, she was experiencing a sleep paralysis episode virtually every night.
‘I would try desperately to scream so someone in the next room would come running to help me, but I couldn’t move.
'Eventually, the nightmare would break. The paralysis would immediately stop and I’d be properly wide awake although gasping for breath and gripped with fear.
She adds: ‘It was a terrible time — when I confided in people they would say it was just a dream.
'But some nights I was going through eight hours of hell. And often the next day I was shattered because I’d been unable to sleep.
'One time when I was 20 and had come home from university, I had such a terrifying experience I begged my mum to sleep in my room with me.’
Elizabeth even started to worry she was going mad.
She visited her GP, who diagnosed sleep paralysis and reassured her the episodes, although frightening, were nothing serious.
‘It was a relief to find it had a proper name and was a recognised sleep disorder.’
But as the nightmares continued, she even tried counselling, believing that talking about her cousin’s death might help the nightmares go away.
Although it didn’t help, the therapist suggested healthy sleeping tips such as avoiding stress and not drinking caffeine too close to bedtime.
Elizabeth also started to research the condition online and taught herself breathing techniques to cope when paralysis strikes.
‘I have learned not to panic,’ she says.
‘Instead I concentrate on breathing steadily and telling myself it isn’t real.
Keeping my breathing steady definitely seems to help bring the nightmare to an end much quicker. And now I only have them once a fortnight.’
Professor Williams adds that because it is a sleep disorder, counselling doesn’t usually help with sleep paralysis, although it helps to manage stress.
It’s also important to eat healthily, take regular exercise and avoid alcohol and stimulants such as caffeine before bed.
Partners can help, too, he adds. ‘You may be able to attract your partner’s attention to tell them you’re having a night terror by blinking or breathing quickly.
'Some people find if their partner touches them that will immediately bring them out of the episode.’
It is also worth seeing your GP. ‘If sleep paralysis is having a big impact on someone’s life, antidepressants can be prescribed that will suppress the REM sleep and therefore reduce the number of episodes,’ says Professor Williams.
These can be taken long-term, but side-effects must be taken into consideration and it depends on the patient’s history whether the treatment is appropriate, he adds.
Elizabeth, who has written a novel, Tartarus, due to be published in August, found that knowing there was nothing wrong with her went a long way in reducing her attacks.
‘I created a heroine, to battle the demons, and living out those fears in my novel was incredibly cathartic,’ she says.
‘Knowledge is power. While they might never go away completely, I no longer worry about sleeping at night.
'For me, facing up to my demons has been my cure.’
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You know that dream? The one where you wake up late and miss your audition? Or get there and realize you’ve prepared all the wrong excerpts? Or arrive only to discover that your instrument case is empty (which actually happened to me once at a master class – in real life)?
What does it all mean? Should we be worried? Especially if we have one of those dreams the night before a big performance?
Or could it possibly be a good sign?
The normal response
When we have a bad dream that puts a bit a fear in our thoughts, it’s tempting to dwell on it, or let the dream get to us a bit. We feel uneasy, anxiety ratchets up, and the worries kick in.
All of which puts us in an emotional state that is neither pleasant, nor helpful.
But don’t these dreams come true sometimes? I mean, it can’t be good to have dreams of crashing and burning the night before, right?
Researchers at Sorbonne UniversitÃ©s in Paris conducted a study to see what sort of relationship there might be between dreaming of one’s medical school entrance exam and the scores themselves. Would dreaming about the exam predict worse performance? Or would the dreams predict better performance?
2324 students in the health studies track at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris were slated to take an entrance exam, which would determine which field of medicine they would be eligible to continue in.
Meaning, each student would be given a ranking based on their test scores, and those ranked first to 313th would be eligible to go to med school. Students with scores in the top 430 could enter pharmacy school, those up to 460 could enter midwifery school, and 499 was the cutoff for dental school.
Needless to say, this was a high-stakes test with some pretty significant consequences for one’s career and life.
After completing the exam, students were asked to complete a short survey.
Of the 719 students who responded, 23.8% dreamed about the exam the night before, and 73.4% reported having dreams about the exam at some point in the semester.
Some students had positive or neutral dreams about the exam, but the vast majority of the dreams were bad ones, centered around some sort of problem or failure on the exam. Being ranked 2,300th, for instance, or being late, running out of time, or not being able to answer the questions.
You know, those nightmarish dreams that wake us up feeling freaked out, uneasy, our heart pounding in anticipation.
Interestingly, the students who dreamed about the exam the night before scored higher than those who didn’t.
In fact, the more frequently students dreamed about the exam during the semester, the higher their scores tended to be.
And if you’re wondering if this had anything to do with whether students had dreams of success vs. dreams of failure, the nature of the dream didn’t seem to matter much. The 177 students who had “good” dreams of exam success didn’t score any higher on average than the 519 students who never dreamed of success, and instead had “bad” dreams of problems and failure.
In fact, the students who got the five highest scores all dreamed of problems on the exam.
So are bad dreams good?
Bad dreams may not be much fun, but the results of the study suggest that far from being an omen of doom, dreaming about an important upcoming “performance” may actually be a good thing. A sign that you are taking it seriously, and are more likely to do better than if you don’t have dreams of the upcoming event.
The authors of the study surmise that this “negative anticipation” might help us “optimize” what we do in our waking hours.
For instance, if you dream about having a memory slip, what’s the first thing you’re likely to do upon waking up? Flip to that section in the score, and refresh your memory, right? And probably even play it through in your head a few times, test yourself, and work on it some more in your practice session?
So the next time you dream of messing up in an audition or performance, remember that this doesn’t mean you’re screwed, and should throw in the towel. Far from it.
Just do what you need to do to be as prepared as you can, and remind yourself that this is just your brain keeping you on your toes.
And that if anything, you’re probably going to do even better than if you didn’t have that dream. That feels better, no?
Reality is never as bad as a nightmare, as the mental tortures we inflict on ourselves. ~Sammy Davis Jr.
photo credit: CameliaTWU via photopincc
Are performances frustratingly inconsistent? Try the 5-min Mental Skills Audit, and find out the specific mental blocks that might be holding you back.
Frustrated that audiences rarely get to hear the real you? Try the 5-min Mental Skills Audit, and find out the specific mental blocks that may be holding you back.