Most people get a rush from fear. They ride roller coasters, skydive, and watch horror movies. However, for the 40 million people in the United States who suffer from a chronic sleep disorder, fear is always at the foot of their bed — waiting for them to fall asleep, or to keep them awake, ready to push them into the descending darkness of terror.
More than 60 percent of North American adults experience some kind of sleep disturbance at least once a week. Nightmares, insomnia, and anxiety are just a few of the causes. It can be quite normal to have trouble falling asleep or waking up, and these problems can often be treated and managed, but other, more serious problems related to sleep can make life a living hell for those who suffer from them. In most cases, sleep-related difficulties range from lack of memory to trouble understanding financial affairs. In extreme cases, they can cause violence to oneself or others, and even lead to death.
The following list includes frightening sleep disorders that cause more than inconvenient cognitive difficulties like concentration and memory. They are serious medical and neurological ailments that, despite treatment and medication, may never go away. Sudden respiratory failure, vivid hallucinations, and complete lack of control are frightening even in isolated incidents—but what if they occur night after night, year after year, with no signs of stopping?
7. Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea is one of the most common sleep disorders in the world. Anyone can develop the disorder, but it is prevalent in overweight, middle-aged adults. It occurs when the throat muscles suddenly open, close, and block the flow of oxygen. Sufferers from obstructive sleep apnea will stop and start breathing intermittently throughout sleep. Of course, people are unconscious, and are not aware this is happening. If the thought of losing oxygen in your sleep isn’t scary enough, sleep apnea can lead to cardiovascular complications, chronic fatigue, and eye problems.
Sometimes narcolepsy is humourlessly depicted in popular culture as people suddenly falling asleep in strange environments. Indeed, that can happen with chronic narcolepsy, but the sleep disorder is extremely serious. Narcolepsy is characterized by extreme daytime fatigue and sudden attacks of sleep. In other worlds, the sufferer may fall asleep without notice and without control. There is no cure for narcolepsy, but it can be managed. However, it can be extremely frightening. Paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations are two of the most debilitating symptoms. For example, sufferers may wake up while still dreaming, and confuse the dream for reality.
5. REM Behaviour Disorder
REM stands for “rapid eye movement.” REM is a specific phase of sleep responsible for deep physical relaxation (slow breathing, paralysis) and the dream state. In this phase, eyes literary move rapidly under the eyelids during dreams. Normally, the body is completely paralyzed during this phase. However, REM behaviour disorder causes sufferers to physically act out their dreams often in the form of unpleasant nightmares. People may violently move their arms and legs (as if they might in a dream) and loudly vocalize situations. REM behaviour disorder can be an early symptom of dementia or Parkinson’s disease. In some cases, sufferers can hurt themselves or their partners with their sudden and violent physical movements.
Sleepwalking is in many ways an extreme version of of REM behaviour disorder. Instead of people acting out their dreams with leg or arm movements, sufferers of sleepwalking can get up, walk around, and perform normal physical functions as they would while awake—but they are still sleeping. Children are more commonly affected by the disorder. Isolated cases do not usually require treatment, as long as the sleepwalker does not unintentionally injure themselves. However, sleepwalking cases where people run barefoot for miles, perform violent actions, or hurt themselves have been documented. Even if occasional or long-time sleepwalkers are not violent, it is a disheartening feeling to know you have no control of your body.
3. Exploding Head Syndrome
Exploding head syndrome almost sounds like something made up, but it is a very real and serious sleep disorder. Sufferers of exploding head syndrome hear very loud noises while sleeping or waking up. These sounds are not always abstract. They can be slamming doors, fireworks, gun fire, or the crack of lightening. Sufferers often mistake these sounds as being real when they hear them. The sounds can also be accompanied by visual sensations of the same sounds. It can lead to depression, anxiety, and panic disorders in those who experience exploding head syndrome for long periods of time. According to the Sleep Medicine Review, the disorder may affect one in ten people during their lives. Hearing sounds that are not really there, especially those that are very loud and abrupt, can be a frightening and scary experience for any person.
2. Night Terrors
Night terrors are by definition extremely scary and discomforting. They occur in episodes of screaming and intense fear that sufferers can not control. Sleepwalking has been known in some who suffer from night terrors, making this disorder that much more frightening. Sufferers can suddenly sit up in bed, scream, kick and punch, run around the house, and engage in aggressive behaviour. Not only can the disorder be extremely embarrassing or exacerbate depression and anxiety, it can lead to injury of the sufferer or their family members.
1. Sleep Paralysis
Imagine waking up and not being able to move any part of your body except your eyes. You are fully conscious and completely aware of your surroundings, but you have lost all control of your physical body. Frightened, you look around the room the best you can. Through the darkness, you see a demon-like figure standing at the foot of your bed. The cackle of an old women echoes throughout the rooms. For people who suffer from sleep paralysis, this experience can be a debilitating reality. The body is naturally paralyzed during sleep (for example, to prevent you from acting out your dreams). However, with sleep paralysis, the mechanism that causes and releases this paralysis malfunctions when the sufferer wakes up. Many cases of this disorder are marked by extremely disturbing, vivid hallucinations of demons, monsters, and even extraterrestrials.