Sleep, anxiety, night terrors – and neuroscience

Some of our children – indeed, some of us – find it extremely hard to switch off. Our brains work overtime, processing what’s happened that day, worrying about what might happen… Some of us wake up at 3am and can’t get back to sleep. Some of us are almost asleep when we suddenly jolt ourselves back to wakefulness, having had a sort of dream that we are about to fall off a cliff or down stairs or similar. And worst of all, some of our poor children suffer from night terrors: episodes of extreme night-time distress, thrashing about screaming and crying, eyes open, but fast asleep.

What causes all these disturbances?

When we are in a constant state of fight/flight or freeze, we are living in survival mode: our brains are on alert for perceived threat. Our primitive lizard brains are active, rather than our rational upper brain (cerebellum). This means it’s very hard to switch off a racing mind and fall asleep.

This fight/flight and freeze cycle (think rabbit in headlights freezing with terror and then racing away to avoid danger) is caused by unintegrated Fear Paralysis and Moro reflexes.

The Fear Paralysis reflex is the first reflex that a foetus develops. It is thought to develop at around 5 weeks in utero, but there is research to show that it may even develop earlier than that, given that Fear Paralysis is a reaction at a cellular level rather than a neurological reaction involving the central nervous system. A foetus will react to threats, such as loud noises, by shrinking and withdrawing in order to protect itself.

The Fear Paralysis causes the foetus to stop moving, restricts peripheral blood flow, lowers the heart rate, reduces exposure to adrenaline and reduces the absorption of cortisol (the stress hormone).This is similar to a mouse feigning death when caught by a cat: heart rate and breathing slow right down so it can protect itself and zoom off and hopefully escape when dropped.

The Moro reflex starts to develop in the second trimester, and gradually takes over from the Fear Paralysis reflex. However, if something stops the Fear Paralysis reflex from integrating effectively, the Moro reflex will also be retained, and a person will live in a constant cycle of fight, flight and freeze. The Moro reflex will cause racing thoughts.

Fear Paralysis is responsible for the emotional well-being of a person, and retaining it means that there are likely to be anxiety, phobias, brain freeze under extreme stress, a lack of adaptability and potentially panic attacks and night terrors. Signs of a retained FPR reflex are:

– anxiety / withdrawn behaviour

– low stress threshold

– rabbit-in-headlights-like freezing when there is a threat

– sensory processing challenges

– hypersensitivity to light/sound

– finds change difficult

– clingy behaviour

– extreme fatigue

– selective mutism (also in adults)

– breath holding when worried/upset/stressed

– obsessive behaviour/OCD

– fear of not being in control

There’s another pesky reflex that I usually find in those with sleep disturbances: the Babkin reflex. This is a reflex associated with separation anxiety.

When I started working to integrate my children’s reflexes, we noticed a dramatic improvement in my son’s ability to switch off at night – it used to take him around two hours to wind down and fall asleep! From a month or so after we started working with his reflexes, he was able to switch off and drift off to sleep within minutes.

I was one of those unfortunately to be jolted awake with a falling-off-a-cliff type dream just as I fell asleep, almost every night, but a couple of weeks after I’d started working with my own reflex integration, I noticed that I had stopped having this experience – and I haven’t experienced this again since, in around 6 years.

If you don’t plan on working with reflex integration to resolve these common sleep issues, here are some other things you can do to calm your autonomic nervous system down:

  • humming
  • take deep breaths in to the count of 4 through your nose, push breaths out through a small “o” (as if you are whistling) through your mouth to the count of 8
  • take deep breaths in to the count of 4 through your nose, push breaths out through a small “o” (as if you are whistling) through your mouth to the count of 8
  • yoga is extremely helpful and will teach you to breathe to help you self regulate
  • take yourself back to your lizard brain, and pretend to be a mermaid, separating upper and lower body as well as you can and rock your lower body from side to side
  • leave mobile phones downstairs, and don’t have a clock by your bed, especially if LED
  • use spray magnesium oil on the soles of your feet
  • use an eye mask to block out light

However, if none of this works, or if you have an inconsolable child with night terrors, reflex integration work – or even the Safe and Sound Protocol, depending on the person – might be a sensible next step, in which case, please do get in touch to find out how I might be able to help.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: