Sleep Terrors

Sleep terrors, or night terrors, are a parasomnia condition in which the subject reacts to a foreboding sense of fear or terror by screaming, thrashing around or crying. They may also get out of bed and walk or run around, and adults are at a risk of performing violent acts during this time. The subject is still in a sleep like state during this outburst and cannot be awoken without some difficulty. The episode can last as long as 20 minutes, after which the subject will either go directly back to REM or deep sleep without ever leaving their sleeping state, or may wake up to extreme confusion. People waking up from a sleep terror may experience amnesia for a short duration following the episode, in which they cannot recall their name, location, or any other distinguishing features of themselves. This usually passes within a couple of minutes.

Sleep terrors (night terrors) are often associated with, or definitively considered a nightmare, though they are in fact quite different. Nightmares occur in the REM stage of sleep, and are traditional dreams from which the person experiencing them may recall imagery, sound and/or feelings. Typical nightmares include being chased by someone or something, falling for an inordinate amount of time, or things that the person finds particularly disturbing or frightful that are often rooted in their sub conscious.

Sleep terrors / night terrors, on the other hand occur before the dream state of REM sleep, in the phase just before deep sleep called the slow-wave sleep phase. The person is not incited to the outburst through any form of imagery or sound that a nightmare would include, but simply a deep sense of terror and fear that they cannot shake.

Sleep terrors are most common in children, especially very young children under the age of 7. Children with sleep terrors are also likely to talk in their sleep and sleepwalk, or develop these parasomnias later after they stop having sleep terrors. As many as 15% of children experience sleep terrors. Adults can also develop sleep terrors, though this is uncommon and is usually brought upon by a deeply traumatic or emotional event, or is developed in adults with a long history of depression, anxiety or bipolar disorders. Adults with sleep terrors should consult a psychiatrist, who should be able to help them deal with the issues that are plaguing them and causing the terrors. As few as 2% of adults experience sleep terrors. There is no link between sleep terrors in children and emotional disorders, or disorders that will be developed later in life.

Sleep terrors, like many other parasomnias are deeply linked to genetics, and those with a family history of sleep terrors are more likely to have them as well. Sleep terrors share the same root causes as sleepwalking, as these can include head injuries, hyperthyroidism, encephalitis, stress, other sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, fevers and medications.

Sleep terrors are easily detectable in most cases, as the person experience them will often let out loud screams or wails that will likely wake up most people in the household. It can be a scary and traumatic experience for parents or loved ones to see their children or partners in such distress, as the look of fear and terror is often easily visible on the person’s face. It should be remembered that sleep terrors are not dangerous, and many times the victim will not fully recall the experience, but go through feelings of disorientation and embarrassment more than anything else. It is important not to try and wake the victim from their state, but to remain by them until it passes. This gives them comfort when they snap out of it, and assures you that they are not getting up and moving about while still in the state, potentially harming themselves or others in the process.

Sleep terrors do not often require any treatment or tests, and in most children they pass before their teen years. If the problem persists, or in the case of sleep terrors in adults, it may be helpful to talk to your doctor or consult a sleep specialist. An overnight sleep study, called a polysomnogram will be advised, which will help determine any other sleep related factors that may be contributing to the sleep terrors, and how they can be limited. The polysomnogram monitors brain wave activity, and can chart the areas of the brain that are being actively used prior to an episode.

The majority of parasomnias , including night terrors, occur in the stage before deep sleep, and taking measures to achieve deep sleep faster, and remain in it once there can limit the number of parasomnia occurrences. Having proper sleeping conditions, limiting any caffeine intake or the intake of any other stimulants, and having routine bed times can all lead to quicker and better quality deep sleep.


Reviewed September, 2007

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14 thoughts on “Sleep Terrors

  1. My family member just an episode this morning, I was so confused. I was in the next room and then I just hear this screaming for a few seconds. I assume it’s outside and think nothing of it. A few minutes later maybe an hour I hear another scream, but then shortly after that I hear him screaming “you fucking idiot”
    (Oh and everyday he wakes up super early but that didn’t happen today)
    I try to go back to sleep but then my mom wakes up and I tell her what happened. She goes into his room asking what’s wrong with him then he just yells back “I hate you!” Next thing I know he’s in the kitchen walking frantically breathing hard. My mom asks again “what is wrong with you!?!” Then he pushes over a chair all angry then starts crying and screams “this is all your fault” then he just sits at the computer and stares the blank scream for like 15 minutes.
    My mom and I are looking at each other thinking wtf just happened. Right now he’s still on the computer. So I assume this is sleep terror (I think that’s what it’s called) just by reading this, but the only thing is that he’s 13. Could this actually be sleep terror or possibly something else? (This is the first time this has happened, I think)

    1. I’ve been suffering from night terrors since I was a child. I am now 27 years old and I still experience mild to severe sleep terrors every other night.

      I struggle with anxiety and depression which I think causes the abnormal sleep patterns. However, when I consume alcohol, I sleep better and don’t have them. I’m going to try cutting out caffeine from my diet and see if that helps any.

      1. its because they are related to the gaba system in the brain that much i know and im not a doctor but mine began after i went on klonopin and now they WILL NOT STOP, its making me feel like im going insane, right now its 5 30 am after a horrible 1 and i just wanna die

  2. In response to Ariel on October 4th. I went through a similar experience as your brother when I was a teen. I had no recollection as to what happened the night before. It was totally out of character for me to use profanity, in which during the night terrors, I did swear. The terrors were caused by stress as something horrible had happened to me and was happening to me daily that I had night shared with anyone. Once my mother found out the things that were happening to me and confronted the people, the terrors resolved. However, I cried in my sleep for quite sometime.

  3. I have been struggling with this condition since childhood and I am now 70 years old and I think it’s getting worse. I guess I need to see a doctor and go from there. It’s to the point I don’t want to spend the night anywhere else so I don’t scare people.

  4. I am 30 years old i awaken from these episodes and in some cases i remember everything and stay awake a paranoid for hours after, in other cases i have to be told about screaming or thrashing the next morning. To say these are not dangerous is bullshit. If i awaken scared half to death and someone is close to me i can seriously hurt them out of fear for my safety. Not meaning to or wanting to.Even after being awake for some time im still in a panicked state if someone not knowing what just happened to me was to be playing around and try to prank me like jumping out and spooking me. I can promise id hurt them without a second thought.

  5. I am 46 years old I start seeing things when I was just 4 years old, it seemed like I was awake but knew I wasn’t, it was lie I was constantly being attacked, , it was the same face every tine,, I didn’t sleep for days ,, I swear something pushed me off my slide in the back yard,,I was rushed to the hospital I remember them all,, I saw things awake and asleep, ,, it never went away, I was tested taken to lots of places as I grew okder,,but the people around me were getting affected,, my mom my friends, ,, no one believes what I see till they are around me,, I thought there was something after me,, it attacked when I’m sleeping, , and doesn’t hurt me til I want to get away, ,, the tests say I’m not bipolar, , and not mentally ill, I’m just very smart and know to much grew up to fast, , when I was supposed to die in 1997,, they said my mind kept me alive they killed my body, , I never saw anything strange while I was ubder,, I was part of an experiment at 27,, I was dying from ulcerative colitis, ,I said no blood even though the ones before who chose this died, ,I kept living every surgey,, god said no blood, ,, in the bible, , anyway I never stopped having the terrors, , it got worse as I got older,,, but still not bi polar or anything, , but my family started getting bothered by the screaming and cussing and my husband would have to leave the bed, I bloody his lip and nose,, he wouldn’t wake me I became violent til I knew who he was,, I went to college I was normal til home or trying to sleep, ,I became so scared I refused to go back to sleep I swear it was real,,same faces always till today, ,,,, anyway nothing worked sleeping pills the doctor gave made it worse, ,then I was trapped in the horrible place I went when I was asleep, , finally my doctor who was my friend by this time, , said I wasn’t crazy I was smart and just needed to shut my brain off to sleep, ,they gave me seraquel, , started at 400 mg,, I was in a coma, , but I thought I was sleeping peaceful and my family was still experiencing my screaming fighting things they didn’t see yelling at something, , my husband still had to leave the room,,, but I was fine wgen I woke up but I felt physically exhausted, , then they would tell me what I did, ,but I slept fine,,,I thought cool it went away, , so when I went back home to take care of my dying father and grandmother I had friends who stayed to help, , I told them what happened and not to be afraid, ,they didn’t believe me till they were there for a while, , then I only needed 100 mg which I still take,,or it still happens, , but the strange thing is that my friend’s and there kids who stayed for any length of time experienced
    The same thing and becamenities afraid of my home,, and one friend told her boyfriend he didn’t believe her and he saw this and was talked to an did get angry and things would happen that they saw behind me or a shelf would get slammed off the wall,,nobody wanted to go out to the pool to shut the pump off. So I had to it seemed as if the people around me were more affected than me,, so now what,, well I talked to my doctor and asked the question can crazy be caused by something else besides my brain,, how do u know what is attacking you and what is mental, , he said he wasn’t able to give me that answer, , looking back when I was 4 years old it didn’t change and I was afraid to wake my father to,, he tried to strangal my mother she still talks about the things that have happened around my father and I, , my friends thought it was my dad after he died, , , I just know people around me are more affected than me and now my friends believe that something is following me and it started with my father,, things didn’t happen Just in my sleep anymore it was in the daytime too,, it really got its worst in 2012 right before my grandmother past away, , my best friend moved in to help, and stayed in the room next to her,,her and her boyfriend said she was having conversations with some one,, I thought she’s dying and probably not all there,,but it’s crazy my boyfriend was abusive and wasn’t leaving, ,when I would get upset or mad shelves would get hit off the wall,, it kept getting worse, , and if my friends and family wernt there I would think I was crazy, , well it was something and I know it was with me since I was little but it wasn’t nice it scared me but it seemed what scared me now was upset when I was not that it was something good, ,, but my boyfriend was hurting me and cheating, , and I was leaving and packing up the house I was I. With my father for 30 years,,she died and I was leaving ,, I guess it or they weren’t happy, ,, now mind you I always sleep with the TV on , it keeps me from thinkING or hearing or what ever,, I was never in the dark, so I’m gone my things are packed and and grandma was dying, the gone, , I kinda think it’s funny, ,boyfriend was left alone there maybe for the first time,, it was 6am,,I get a phone call ,,, I was at the hospital, ,, so he calls scared to death refused to go back in the house till I got home,,he was so scared he called his best friend too,, scared to death, ,, so I guess he went into the house where he lived to and it went after him,, he said something was screaming at him and they were slamming the doors threatening him and trapped him in the house, ,we had a security door, , he had to kick it till it opened, ,he went to is truck refused to go back in till I got there, , his friend thought he was crazy, , k, so I got back from where I was to take care of my grandmother funeral and the doors were broken off the hinges hanging there,, the security door was bent and door jam was destroyed, , I knew he was telling the truth, ,,but now all the time he thought I was crazy just came to betrue,,my friends tried to tell him,,,he wasn’t home enough, , to see,, although he would get upset when I was sleeping cause of the thrashing and yelling and anger,, anyway, , when I got home ,my response was now you know why I sleep with the TV and lights on, , you can’t here it the same, , he just looked at me still scared, , and I think he became afraid of me, , after dealing with this my whole life, being called crazy all the tests, , I don’t think my night terrors are or were caused by any thing in my head,, but it depends on who I’m around, everyone acts different about my sleeping, and the fight I fight when I’m not awake,, I don’t know why I’m even saying this to anyone, , I just was rea single how it affects everyone different, and maybe wanted to share that it might make you feel like your crazy and the people around act like your weird, , but your probably not,, there are many ways to treat these symptoms real or not,,,I’ve found that if I take my seraquel I don’t remember and feel like I’m sleeping good,, but I am told I still do the same things when I sleep I just don’t remember, ,, everyone who reads this will probably gave different views of what I said, , but maybe it will help someone who is suffering the same way, it’s a horrible thing to be afraid to sleep, ,

  6. I’ve been dealing with this for years now cuz there’s been tamatic things that have happened to me in my life I am now 19 an I only get them when I’m very stressed out but at least I have my boyfriend there for me to hold onto after I have one

  7. I had Night Terrors as a child I had the strangest dreams and I can remember them. I can even describe what was happening in my dream. I have a really strong long term memory, I can remember things other family members don’t. One dream I had I was getting beat up by an invisible man and woke up feeling like I got hit, another one I had my stomach was expanding then blew up and I had extreme stomach pain. Night Terrors are fairly dangerous, the are dangerous because, your brain makes you body think it’s real. Sleepwalking is dangerous because, you can hurt someone or yourself and not realize it. I have been through it all and remember it all, night terrors are dangerous it can kill you, depending on the severity where as sleepwalking your more likely to badly injure someone else but, I mean if you don’t try to wake a sleepwalker it will be fine.

  8. I am so glad to have come across this site and all of these comments. it gives me a little sense of peace knowing I’m not alone in this. I am a 22 year old female who has been struggling with sleep talking and sleep walking for about 5 years now. for the past 2 years I have been dealing with thinking I am waking up to things in my room or in my face. things like dark shadows or skulls floating over my face. Normally I would just wake to heavy breathing and a very fast heart beat due to the extreme fear but after a few minutes it goes away. in the worst case I would maybe lie awake for a few hours before being able to regulate my heart beat and then fall asleep. little by little the night terrors became more frequent and at one point about 3 weeks ago I went 5 nights without sleeping due to waking up each night to things in my room or floating in front on my face. I became anxious and frustrated being unable to sleep although I was so exhausted. but out of all of my experiences last night was my worst. I had the worst reaction to a night terror. I woke up to screaming franticly like if somebody was trying to kill me. I couldn’t stop screaming until I woke myself up to my screams. I live with 2 roommates who rushed to my bedroom door and banged on it until I was able to go to my door and open it. it took me about 3 minutes before I was fully conscious and awake and was able to stop hysterically crying. I couldn’t stop shaking or crying for hours. It took me about 3 hours before I was even able to lay in my bed. The fear I felt was indescribable. It is now the next day and I still cant stop hearing my own screams. I now fear that I can be a danger to my self and possibly even others when I am in this state. Please if anybody knows of any remedies or what to do, respond and let me know. I can use any advice I can get. Sincerely a fellow sufferer of night terrors.

  9. In late teens into about40, I had night terrors. Woke the house up with screaming hysterically. I am now 60. Two things happened around when they began. Trauma in home my dad threatened my mom with a knife which I had to break up. I feel down a flight of steps, caused by a slip and fall. Heard my cousin screaming hysterically and I believe he was sexually violated by my brother. That’s three. Also just a general sense of violence in the home. I remember two of the last times. Being at a cousins house after a violent earthquake and when my dad was diagnosed with a terminal illness. They stopped when he died.

  10. I had night terrors when i was about eight but now I’m 20 and I started having them again. My night terrors are moderate to extreme. Some nights its just thrashing and yelling, if I’m sleeping next to someone I start to hit them a lot during the episode but lately its elevated to walking around throwing things at the creatures attacking me while yelling. Should I talk to a shrink or sleep specialist or I’m I still in the late kid stage so its normal?

  11. After an episode the other night I started to do some research. I am 64 years old and always thought they were nightmares. I would get them a few times a year and they would be from my believing that I was being attacked or threatened, sometimes someone trying to drag me away. Very real, not the usual crazy dream with things out of place. It is somewhat comforting that it most likely is not serious. Reading others stories is helpful. Less stress is always better. Keep trying all.

  12. I have had night terrors or what I thought were nightmares, for as long as I can remember since school age at least and still experience them maybe a few times a month. I gather they differ from nightmares as they are not associated with dreaming according to the article above but mine often are though not always. They are certainly linked with a strong sense of fear but so stoked of deep sadness too. I eventually wake myself up or a women up by my partner gently after much loud shouting or deep sobbing ,crying out in panic and maybe ta!king too. I often can not stop crying after waking or being woken but am so relieved to nolonger be shouting. Whatever fear I have perceived still feels very real for sometime and I take quite a lot of reassuring that there is no threat of that my dream of fear is over. They are exhausting and leave me feeling disturbed for quite a few hours sometimes or prey on my mind. I have experienced depression in my life and traumatic situations to self and loved ones and have experienced extreme stress and extremely stressful situations. I tend to get them when overtired, or over heated so naturally worse since the menopause, and have great difficulty sleeping. Always have had difficulty sleeping. I am 53 now. They certainly are linked with stressful build up and tiredness , disturbed sleep cycle and strong cheeses too ! I never take caffeine andvery rarely even one very small glass of wine maybe once a month. The article was helpful. I thought it was more common than 2% so that has surprised me.

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