Dreams: Scott and Heather

Dreams: Scott and Heather

"I have night terrors twice a week," says Scott. "My first night terror was immense fear. I was screaming. The room was shaking. It was like I was in a wind tunnel, but I couldn't control anything. I was sweaty and terrified the entire night. For about a month, I only slept during the day because I was so scared to be asleep at night."

His wife, Heather, is concerned how the recurring night terrors will affect their family. "My biggest fear is that Scott is going to harm himself, me or one of our daughters," she says. "When I was seven months pregnant, I woke up to Scott kicking, kneeing and hitting my stomach. It really frightened me. He thought I was an animal that he was trying to kill."

Scott says his night terrors usually involve something chasing or attacking him. "About a week ago, I was dreaming that there was a giant snake in the bed. I remember trying to kill off the snake, but I was actually smothering Heather with the pillow," he says.

Heather documented one of Scott's sleepwalking sessions on video. "I woke up to the sound of the front door closing. It scared me, so I go outside and he is walking down the sidewalk. He told me that it was a nice night. It was freezing," she says.

Desperate for help, Scott turns to Dr. Phil. "My night terrors and sleepwalking terrify me. I don't know where I'll go, what I'll do, or if I'll ever come out of it. It's like you're being trapped."

Dr. Phil makes clear that he's playing actual video footage of Scott's sleep terrors. "So what we were seeing is not re-enactments. These were your actual experiences while you were asleep," he says. 

Scott responds to his first time seeing the videotape. "It's scary because most of the sleepwalking incidents are second-hand information from Heather," he says.

"You have amnesia about this after the fact," Dr. Phil observes. "You have very little, if any, recall."

Scott agrees. "The only recall I have is like being in bed, blindfolded. I remember the feeling and the pain of it, but I don't remember what I actually did."

"What's you're reaction to seeing yourself verbalizing like that and walking around like that?"

"It's scary," Scott admits. "I don't know what I'll do. I've done everything from eating to trying to smother my wife [while sleepwalking]. There's just no telling. I have no control over what's going on."

Dr. Phil addresses Heather. "Are you concerned for your life?" 

She voices her trepidation. "I'm very concerned, not only for my life, but for our daughters' lives," she confesses. "He'll go into their rooms and he'll get them and not realize that it's a baby. What if he thinks it's an animal or something that he has, and he harms them or he takes them outside and leaves them? I don't sleep soundly because I wait to see what he's going to do."


"Which is not good for you. So you're sleeping with one eye open, wondering if you're going to be attacked," Dr. Phil sympathizes. "What's your experience when you try to wake him up? How does he respond?"

"A lot of times he'll argue with me," she says. "Or he'll act like he wasn't doing anything wrong." But she reveals that Scott is a completely different person during the day. "I would never worry about anything when he's awake," she tells Dr. Phil. "The dreams that he has are of me trying to hurt him." 

"Does that hurt your feelings?" Dr. Phil asks. 

"It does. Is he subconsciously thinking that I want to kill him?"

"What do you think is going on?" Dr. Phil asks Scott.

Scott reveals that he has been plagued by nightmares since the third grade. "My dad was in the Gulf War. I would get up and try to let him in the door [in my dreams]," he recalls. "Here lately, it's just been escalating, and it seems to kind of correspond with financial stress. We've had two kids in two years. I'm trying to help her go through school."

Heather adds, "We're living on one income."

"We can talk until we're blue in the face about what the cause of this is, where it comes from, onset-wise. We do know that there was a very stressful time in your life when you were in the third grade when your dad was gone. He was in harm's way," Dr. Phil points out. "What we know now is that with financial stress, schedule stress, time stress ... that as the stress goes up, this is intensifying." 

"It has been getting worse," Scott acknowledges. 

"So we can at least infer that there is a connection between real-world awake stress and sleep reactions to this kind of thing," Dr. Phil observes.

Dr. Phil mentions that most of Scott's sleep terrors center around the threat of danger. "Tell me about the bomb in the kitchen," he says.

"The chunk of the dream that I remember is that there was a bomb in my hand, and I'm running to try to diffuse it. My mom was in the hallway [in my dream] and she caught me. I ran by her almost taking her out, and I dove into the kitchen. I woke up because of the impact," Scott remembers. He tells Dr. Phil that he had bruises on his torso as a result, and was sore for several days afterwards.

"Again, danger," Dr. Phil points out. He explains that some people try to interpret dream symbols, but this analysis is usually subjective. "What we do know with some scientific basis is that if you're experiencing stress and anxiety in your waking life, that it can cause you to have poor quality sleep. It can cause dissomnia. It can cause parasomnia, like what we're taking about here with the sleep terrors and the sleep walking."

Dr. Phil continues, "When you're awake, your inhibition centers are very active, so it can push those things out of your consciousness. Your brain is working, it's dealing with the world, it's looking at things — TV, driving, work. When you go to sleep, those inhibition centers relax, and so a lot of this stuff can come bubbling up. The brain is a complex computer. It doesn't bubble up as, 'What are we going to do, financially, living on one income?' It bubbles up as 'Danger, attack, fear,' because it's all anxiety."

Dr. Phil advises Scott to incorporate some stress- and anxiety-management tools into his waking life to combat his sleep terrors. "Dreams typically involve unfinished business from your day," Dr. Phil explains. "Go through some ritualistic behavior of making sure the house is safe. Make sure things are in order, writing down what your worries and concerns are and having a plan for dealing with those things, so you don't really have unfinished business."

He turns to Dr. Frank Lawlis, chairman of the Dr. Phil advisory board. Dr. Lawlis is skilled in stress- and anxiety-management using relaxation, imagery and music. "Frank, talk a little bit about music during the sleep cycle to diminish this kind of activity." 

"There are two aspects to it. One is that you are in a deep sleep, which means that you can't wake up. One of the things about music is the rhythm of the music will keep you from getting into that deep sleep and will keep you in a lighter state, so that you can wake up when you need to," Dr. Lawlis explains. "The second thing is because of the rhythm, and perhaps because of the harmony, it creates more relaxation, and it diminishes the stress that creates the problem in the first place."

Dr. Phil elaborates. "When Frank says you're not going into the deepest sleep, we're not talking about poor quality sleep here. We're talking about high quality sleep, but your brain is engaged in a rhythmic sort of thing that helps with the rest of the body in terms of staying calm."


He advises the couple to use environmental controls until Scott's sleep terrors are diminished. "You have to arrange some locks on the children's doors where he can't get in there. You've got to create an alarm system, seriously, if it means just tying a rope to his foot, and tying it to the foot board of the bed so when he gets up, at worst, he's dragging you down the hall with the bed," Dr. Phil tells Heather. "For a period of time, you may want to sleep separately. If you're lying there worrying, 'Is he going to try to kill me tonight?' you need to go into another room with one of those doors that locks from the inside ... I think you'll find this is short-term, not long-term. But you need some anxiety management tools. You need some stress-management tools. And then you need some enhancements while you're sleeping."

Dr. Lawlis agrees to provide some stress-management exercises for Scott. For more information on Dr. Lawlis' MINDBody Relaxation Series CDs, click here.