Harry Griffiths wasn’t sure where he was when he came to – all he knew was that one of his best friends was being crushed by a log. He sweated and shook with adrenalin as he threw his weight against the block of wood. If he couldn’t shift it, it was clear his friend was going to die.
Then he felt a piercing pain in his shoulder and came to again, this time in the dark of his bedroom. He realised he had been pushing his bed against the wall, and since the brickwork wasn’t going to move, his shoulder had – popping half the way out of its socket. There was no friend and no log; Griffiths, 23, had experienced a night terror, a sleep condition he has lived with since his late teens.
And Griffiths, who grew up in London but now works in New York, is not alone. Exact figures are impossible to come by, but experts estimate between one and two per cent of the UK adult population are affected by sleep disorders, with around 100,000 of those thought to experience night terrors in some form.
These differ from nightmares in that the person engages with their surroundings. While nightmares often have complex narratives, night terrors typically revolve around simple, primitive images – such as the walls caving in, snakes on the ceiling or an intruder in the room. Sufferers often say the fear they experience during an episode is more intense than anything they have known in real life.
Steph’s Packed Lunch presenter Steph McGovern has just revealed she had therapy to deal with hers, which began as a child – she once thought she was going to be late for school, and left the house fully dressed in school uniform, at 2am in the morning – and continued to bother her as an adult.
“As I’ve got older, they have become more vivid. And since having a baby, I will regularly wake up and think I’ve lost her,” she said.
“I imagine she’s in bed with me and I’ve dropped her, or I’ve lost her. Quite a few times, my partner has found me on the floor scrabbling around under things or in cupboards, looking for the baby.”
Night terrors are more common in children than adults, and researchers into the science of sleep have yet to come up with a definitive answer as to why some people continue to experience them in later life. Dr Ian Smith, the director of the sleep centre at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, says the condition seems to be genetic as it runs in families, and is often tied up with sleep walking and sleep talking.