Gasping for breath, I thrashed about as black smoke curled around my nostrils. I sat bolt upright in bed and screamed. The mattress was on fire.
Then I felt a firm grip on my shoulders. ‘Wake up!’
My partner, Matt, was shaking me. I wasn’t on a burning mattress but in my own bed: it had just been another of my bad dreams. My legs were covered in scratches from the imaginary fire I’d tried to put out in my sleep.
I burst into tears. ‘Not again,’ I cried.
Numbers: While 15 per cent of children have night terrors, so do two per cent of grown adults
This kind of experience has been a regular part of my life since childhood. It began, aged nine, with extreme nightmares. But soon, I was having night terrors, too.
While nightmares occur in the lighter rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, when our bodies are paralysed, meaning we can’t act them out, night terrors occur in the non-REM stage of sleep, which means if you have a night terror you can act out what’s happening.
Those affected may sit upright, shout, kick, walk around or appear panicked. Yet whereas people often recollect their dream or nightmare, someone who has had a night terror rarely will.
The only clues that anything is wrong are being unusually tired, as the terrors interrupt refreshing sleep, or waking up with unexplained injuries from thrashing around during sleep.
Mum picked up on this after finding me in bed, my arms flailing around, despite being asleep. By the age of 11, I was having night terrors or nightmares three or four times a week and was so sleep-deprived I’d nod off at school.
The GP told Mum I’d grow out of it. But night terrors pursued me into my 30s, leaving me miserable with exhaustion and anxious about what might occur when I fell asleep. I’m far from alone in this.
Night terrors, like nightmares, are a form of parasomnia (sleep disorder) most common in children, but, in fact, many adults also regularly experience both.
Around 20 per cent of six-year-olds have nightmares weekly and 6 per cent of adults. And while 15 per cent of children have night terrors, around 2 per cent of adults also experience them.
Over the years I’ve tried medication, relaxation techniques and good sleep habits without success.
Scary: Night terrors, like nightmares, are a form of parasomnia (sleep disorder) most common in children, but, in fact, many adults also regularly experience both
Finally, though, I’ve managed to cut the frequency of my nightmares and eradicate my terrors after trying a new technique known as lucid dreaming that has taught me to control my dreams.
Night terrors and nightmares are a normal part of childhood development.
‘The brain is growing so there is a lot of activity which causes sleep disruptions,’ explains Dr Peter Venn, clinical director of the sleep disorder centre at Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead.
‘They generally burn themselves out by the teenage years, when brain growth begins to slow down, but they can resurface in adults during times of stress.’
I found stress instantly made my terrors and nightmares worse.
‘If anything disturbs a very deep sleep, such as something that’s worrying you or a physical problem such as sleep apnoea, where you temporarily stop breathing, the brain reaches a hyper-arousal state so we partially wake,’ says Dr Venn.
‘This is when night terrors are most likely to happen, as some parts of the brain are awake and other parts are deeply asleep, so it becomes confused.’
One time, in my 30s, I woke, startled, after throwing myself out of bed during a night terror in which anacondas were suffocating me. My then boyfriend rushed me to hospital thinking I was having a heart attack. I wasn’t, it was just a panic attack.
Four years ago, when I was having a night terror or nightmare every night, my GP suggested antidepressants because they can promote a deeper and more restful sleep by boosting serotonin, one of the brain chemicals that regulate the sleep/wake cycle.
Though they work for some people, they made my nightmares worse — which is not uncommon, says Dr Guy Meadows, clinical director at The Sleep School. I tried going to bed at the same time each night but it made little difference, and it became harder to cope after my son, Milo, was born in 2016.
Desperate for a solution, I came across the work of psychologist Dr Denholm Aspy, from the University of Adelaide, who conducted a study into techniques to induce lucid dreams, where you’re aware you’re dreaming and can control what you dream about.
The idea is to reprogramme the mind to recognise it is dreaming while you sleep, and think up non-frightening scenarios.
I contacted Dr Aspy, who sent me instructions for three techniques. The first involved setting an alarm to wake me five hours after falling asleep and staying awake for a few minutes while trying to recall the dream I’d just had.
Then I had to practise mnemonic induction of lucid dreams (MILD), which involved repeating the mantra, ‘The next time I’m dreaming, I will remember I’m dreaming’, several times in my head every minute.
I also had to do a ‘reality’ test by trying to push the fingers of one hand through the palm of the other. If I could, it meant I had fallen back to sleep and was dreaming again. I had to repeat steps two and three after waking until I fell back to sleep.
The finger pushing part of the technique works on the ‘prospective memory — your ability to remember to do things in the future,’ Dr Aspy explained.
‘By repeating the phrase you will remember you’re dreaming. It forms an intention in your mind.’
For two weeks I followed all this to no effect. Then, one night, after my five-hour wake-up alarm, I lay there thinking about the dream I had just had about Milo drowning. I kept repeating: ‘The next time I’m dreaming, I will remember I’m dreaming.’
Then I fell asleep and Milo was drowning again. But suddenly I knew I was dreaming and took over the story. Instead of sinking, he began to swim around, giggling.
It’s an approach some dismiss. Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, claims only 20-30 per cent of people can naturally control their dreams.
‘If it was so beneficial, Mother Nature would have had all of us being capable of lucid dreaming,’ he says, adding that lucid dreaming isn’t used in sleep clinics.
I also had a few sessions with a counsellor who taught me imagery rehearsal therapy, which involved reimagining my nightmares with different outcomes the following morning and again before bed. So instead of zombies crawling over me, I’d see puppies.
I began meditating daily, too. Now, 12 months on, I get a nightmare once or twice a month and I’ve only had one night terror in six months. And if I do dream about Milo, he’s usually playing happily.
For more information go to luciddreamingaustralia.com