Advertisement

Nightmares Aren't Kid-Stuff

Dr. Antonio Zadra's girlfriend wakes to find the good doctor standing on the arms of a teetering chair he has dragged to the center of the bedroom floor, and swatting at the blades of the ceiling fan above his head.

When the girlfriend asks what he's doing, Zadra replies, "Come on, we can't have all these lobsters hanging from the fan."

Advertisement

Advertisement

"I thought we had an infestation of lobsters," he tells me. "They were all over the ceiling."

"Some dream," I offer.

"But it wasn't a dream," Zadra replies. "That's the point. When I climbed up on the chair, I wasn't dreaming. Not completely. I wasn't asleep, and I wasn't awake. Or, I was a little of both, with the waking and sleeping states co-existing, sort of."

Confusional Awakening

Out here on the cutting edge of dream research, where critical science must make room for metaphysical wonder, it's not always easy to pin things down in ways that make sense to laypeople like me. But Zadra, a noted dream researcher for Sacre Coeur Hospital's Dream and Nightmare Lab here in Montreal, knows exactly where he's going.

"Being awake, or being asleep," he says, "is not a matter of black and white. Some sleepwalkers can drive a car for miles and miles without crashing during an episode. There must be some processing of visual information going on. But if you stood in front of that same person, they might stare right through you as if you didn't exist at all."

For the record, the technical term for Zadra's odd quasi-dream behavior is "confusional awakening," one of many strange adventures lying in wait as we make the nightly crossing from waking to sleeping and back again. At the Dream and Nightmare Lab, one of very few sleep centers anywhere to focus scientifically upon solving the riddle of dreams, Zadra and his colleagues spend their days searching for signposts along that route.

The lab is visited regularly by sleepwalkers, sleep talkers, sleep drivers, sleep eaters; people who repetitively bang their heads while they're sleeping, are troubled by disturbing bedtime hallucinations, or who struggle violently in the dark with enemies who attack only during slumber.

Tomorrow, we'll take a look at some of this odd, dream-related behavior, and discuss the fascinating research through which Zadra and friends hope to figure out why we dream the way we do. Today, though, I want to focus on nightmares and night terrors, since those two problems account for most of the clinical foot traffic at the lab.

"Many people confuse nightmares and night terrors," says Zadra, "but they're completely different conditions, and you don't need a sleep expert to help you tell them apart."

According to Zadra, night terrors, (or "sleep terrors" in the jargon of the pros) are characterized by the victim's obvious sense of panic and disorientation.

Advertisement

Advertisement

"Their eyes are open," he says, "their heart rate might triple, they might hyperventilate, they usually scream and they are always in extreme confusion."

It's a hallmark of the disorder, Zadra says, that sleep terror victims aren't able to identify the source of their panic; at best there's the lingering impression of a vague and frightening image — a burning house, being buried alive — but in the morning, the entire episode is often forgotten.

"We've had patients experience a full-blown attack in the lab," he says, "and not remember a thing in the morning. They're astounded when we show them the video."

On the other hand, Zadra says, sufferers of even the nastiest nightmares rapidly reorient themselves after awakening. "They tend to wake with a feeling of relief rather than confusion," he says. "They realize quickly that they were dreaming, and in the morning they can usually recall the entire dream."

The two conditions respond to differing treatments, too. Since sleep terror attacks seem linked to periods of stress, training in stress management techniques often helps to dramatically reduce the frequency and intensity of attacks.

A regular sleep schedule is also important, says Zadra, because it regulates the amount of time we spend in slow wave sleep each night. "Sleep terrors occur in deep, slow wave sleep," he explains. "If you are deprived of sleep, your body will make up for it by increasing the time you spend sleeping at those deep levels. And that widens the window for more sleep terror attacks."

"There are no real studies on the effectiveness of the treatment," says Zadra, "but in my experience, I'd say about half the people we treat report fewer, or less intense episodes, or both."

Sufferers of chronic nightmares, on the other hand, are taught to fight off their terrifying dreams with techniques of lucid dreaming.

For example, a 35-year-old woman came to the Dream and Nightmare Lab for help with a recurrent nightmare she'd suffered for 20 years, in which she's hiding from a savage mob, intent on killing and mutilating everyone in its path.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Working with Zadra, the woman rehearsed strategies for confronting her nightmarish pursuers and practiced the lucidity skills that would help her seize control of the dream.

One week later, when the dream occurred again, the woman confronted the mob assertively. "I'm not going to hide anymore!" she shouted. Immediately, the mob quelled, someone shouted "Cut!" and she realized she was on a large movie set. The film's director approached to congratulate her for a good performance. She never had the dream again.

Dr. Zadra also once helped his 6-year-old nephew put an end to a terrifying nightmare.

"My nephew was having dreams in which he'd be attacked by a flock of owls," said Zadra. "They'd swoop down and peck viciously at his head. He was very upset by it."

"I told him not to run from the owls," Zadra explained. "I said, 'Maybe they want to play with you and when you run from them it makes them mad.' I told him to ask the owls to be his friends."

"The next time he had the dream, he did what I told him," said Zadra. "The owls responded by inviting him to fly with them. So the nightmare turned into a very pleasant flying dream. My nephew is 14 now," Zadra said, "and he still dreams of the owls. He calls them his dream allies."

More Electrodes — and an Inflatable Cuff

Fighting dreams with dreams. Pretty cool. But hey, speaking of recurrent nightmares, guess what: I'm all wired up and ready for another sleep study. Yes, I just spent 45 minutes with a very nice young woman named Nancy who pasted some 25 electrodes to my face, scalp and torso, giving me all the visual panache of one of those cheesy 1960s monsters on Outer Limits. I'm part of a research project, see, doing my bit for science. No hose-up-the-nose, thank God, but Dr. Zadra is going to wrap inflatable cuffs around my thighs, and when I slip into REM phase, he'll pump them up, and we'll see how it affects my dreams. I'll fill you in in my next dispatch. In the meanwhile, I think I'm supposed to have a nightmare. I'm hoping, instead, to have my new favorite dream — that's the one where we all go over to Dr. Z's for lobster.

Advertisement


Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement