Sven came to me unable to sleep unless he pushed his body to such physical exhaustion that he “blacked out” and had no dreams. Otherwise when he slept he would wake up a multiple times a week with his arms over his head, heart racing, and fearful. It would take hours to calm down his nervous system enough to know that reality was separate from his dreams.
Margie came to me sleeping only 4 or 5 hours a night, afraid of the dreams that would have her waking at all hours shaking, sweating, and feeling disoriented. She would stay up watching Netflix, reading, or working – anything to put off going to sleep. The only reliable way to sleep for more than a few hours was drinking enough to pass out. This left her pretending she was fine while really feeling exhausted, afraid, unable to relax, and watching her body scream in chronic pain.
While the graphic shows some of the differences between night terrors and nightmares, for the average person we don’t really care what it’s called. We just know that it’s messing with our ability to think and function. It’s wrecking our ability to rest and recover, and our moods and emotions are distracted and irritable.
We don’t like it. We want it to stop. We long for rest. We long for peace.
Get Better Sleep to Prevent Night Terrors
One of the most cited causes of night terrors is being overly tired. Another is stress. So to sleep without these nasty interruptions, we’re told to get better sleep and lower stress. Does anyone else see the logical double bind here? We’re desperate to get better sleep but we can’t because we’re exhausted, which leads to more nightmares and night terrors. This circular logic can feel crazy making and lead to a lot of self-blame. Both of which create more stress. What’s a person to do?
5 ways to end night terrors and nightmares
We need something to interrupt the vicious cycle of poor sleep. Here are 5 ideas that have worked for my clients:
- Wind down for bed with calming activities.
- Share the calming activity with a trusted friend.
- Talk with someone who really listens.
- Feel your feelings and express your emotions.
- Experience trusted touch and holding
Let’s look at each of these more closely.
Wind down for bed with calming activities.
Signal your body and mind that it’s time to slow down and rest. Choose calming activities to help you wind down for bed. You can take a bath, read a calming book, listen to a meditation, or take a walk in nature. Doing these activities every day for a month creates an effective habit.
Share the calming activity with a trusted friend.
Co-regulate your nervous system by inviting someone to share your bedtime routine with you. Humans are social creatures and we use one another to moderate our breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, and other signs that tell us it’s time to be alert or time to relax. Find a calm person to be with you and share the activities and you will find the stress reduction is magnified. If your friend lives far away, you can get creative with Zoom or Facetime. The accountability of doing it together will still make it easier to create an effective habit even if you miss out on some of the co-regulation.
Talk with someone who really listens.
Giving voice to your thoughts keeps them from spinning endlessly in your head and eruptin in your sleep. Sharing with a caring, compassionate listener is one of the biggest joys and connections in life. It’s a great way to get the weight off your own mind. Pick someone who won’t try to fix you, change you, or give you advice. This compassionate listening feels amazing and relieves stress.
Feel your feelings and express your emotions.
Every client who comes to me with night terrors or nightmares has a strong resistance to feeling their feelings. They’ve been told to keep a lid on it, keep it together, and show the world a happy face. They believed that emotions were at best useless and at worst dangerous. Feelings and emotions were not valued in their childhood nor in the present.
I offer my clients a safe place and guidance to feel their feelings without getting overwhelmed and stuck in them. Feeling emotions without anyone trying to fix you, change you, or give you advice also feels amazing and relieves stress. Emotions don’t last forever and paradoxically, feeling them is often a way to release them more easily than trying not to feel them.
Experience trusted touch and holding
Physical holding and cuddling in a safe environment signals the body to release dopamine and oxytocin – hormones and neurotransmitters that are great for relaxing and releasing tension. It also reduces cortisol which is often called the stress hormone. Humans have nerves in their skin that are specialized to detect the pressure and temperature of human touch. We are literally wired to be held. Why? To be held by a calm, kind person lets us know it is safe to relax, to connect, to let down our guard. Instead of trying to think your way to relaxation, you can just let it happen.
Let’s look at how being held, listened to, and cared for impacted Margie and Sven.
Margie saw me intensely for nine months and in that time her resting heart rate decreased 20 bpm – a great sign of stress reduction. She began to feel relaxed and safe. She started sleeping longer and deeper. Her nights were no longer scary.
What would it be like for you to go to sleep easily and sleep well?
Sven immediately experienced a reduction in night terrors from 3 or more a week to …. None? He can’t remember the last time he had one. It is now normal for him to wake refreshed and clear headed. It used to take him hours after he got up to feel like he could think straight. Now it’s nearly effortless.
What could you do with 6 extra hours each week?
Where Do I Find Someone I Trust?
Where do you find a trusted, safe person to hold you while you share and feel? If all of the above suggestions sound good to you, but you aren’t sure who to turn to, I can help. If you can travel to Boulder, Colorado I would be delighted to meet with you. I can also help you find trusted professionals all over the world.
I would love to talk with you about night terrors, nightmares, as well as depression, anxiety, trauma, and relationships. I would love to help you have the life and relationships of your dreams, starting with a good night’s sleep. Please grab a time and let’s talk soon.