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Night Terrors: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatments

Woman experiencing night terrors

Night terrors, also referred to as sleep terrors, can cause you to experience deep fear in your sleep. These terrors are most common in children, but appear in adults too. Learn more about the differences between night terrors and nightmares, what causes night terrors, and how to deal with them.

What Are Night Terrors?

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 while they are asleep. 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 these outbursts and can only be awoken with some difficulty.

An 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.

Night Terrors vs Nightmares

Night terrors are often confused with nightmares, though they are in fact quite different. What is the difference between night terrors and nightmares?

Nightmares occur in the REM sleep, and are traditional dreams from which the person experiencing them may recall imagery, sound or feelings. Typical nightmares include being chased by someone or something, falling for an inordinate amount of time, or involve things that the person finds particularly disturbing or frightful that are often rooted in their subconscious.

Night terrors (sleep terrors) 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.

Night Terrors in Children

Sleep terrors are most common in children, especially very young children under the age of 7. Children with night 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 night terrors. There is no link between sleep terrors in children and emotional disorders, or disorders that will be developed later in life.

Night Terrors in Adults

Adults can also develop night 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. As few as 2% of adults experience sleep terrors. Those who do experience these terrors should consult a psychiatrist, who should be able to help them deal with the issues that are plaguing them and causing the terrors.

Sleep terrors share the same root causes as sleepwalking

What Causes Night Terrors?

Night 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.

Night Terror Symptoms & Signs

Sleep terrors are easily detectable in most cases, as the person experiencing them will often let out loud screams or wails that will likely wake up others 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 night 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.

Don't wake people from Night Terrors

Don't Wake People from Night Terrors

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, allowing you to support them. Additionally, this allows you to keep an eye on them 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.

Treating Night Terrors

Night 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. Occasionally night terrors lead to other sleep disorders like insomnia, which can be treated. An overnight sleep study, called a polysomnogram may 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. Taking measures to achieve deep sleep faster, and remain in it once there, can limit the number of parasomnia occurrences. Practicing good sleep hygiene, 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.

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177 comments on “Night Terrors: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatments”

  1. I appar to be awake it feels real but I actually asleep.
    I was trying to move and get my husband's attention but I couldn't move or speak.
    This figure is coming closer to attack me but I can move but maybe wiggle my fingers. Finally I'm able to make a sound. I'm yelling loud in my sleep but I wake myself up but it was loud wailing sounds. It woke my husband up asked If I was okay but I keep looking online for answers but it keeps saying I can't or Mostly won't remember it. Though it's not my 1st episode. I wake myself in fear screaming and or crying more then often. It's like actually tears. I just can't move or speak but once I finally break free my mind wakes up and my heart rate is racing fast sometimes it hurts.

  2. My girlfriend says she experiences night terrors. When she falls asleep sometimes she will tense up in her sleep and be in pain from it, sometimes she talks, I imagine about something that happened in her past. Certain things also cause this more than others. A glass of chocolate milk is the worst so far for her night terrors. What can I do so she stops tensing up? How can I help her?

  3. I had night terrors as a child. They started up again 19 years ago when I was in my 20s. The initial terrors were always spiders. Always big scary spiders and I would wake up looking for them. I had friends sleeping over looking for them, too.
    They were a semi-regular occurrence for about ten years when they slowly began to be less scary and disappear altogether. The terror changed over time but the sequence was repetitive for a number of years before it’d change. I had terrors that the smoke alarm light was a laser that would cut me up. There was one sequence where the walls of the house were falling in on me. And I always woke up with amnesia about who I was and where I was but fully living the terror.
    Last year they came back with a vengeance. 3-4 times a night. I was terrified just to go to sleep. Especially because one night I woke up next to my child asking who she was. Luckily she didn’t wake.
    I went searching through old diaries and emails and anything that might tie the events together. I wondered if something had stopped ten years ago and started again last year. I couldn’t believe it when I realized it was to do with a friendship. We had been quite close for ten years but loved in different countries. When my life moved on and I had a partner and child, we stopped communicating so much. Maybe just a few times a year.
    When I left my partner we got back in touch communicating several times a week. I tested the theory before talking to my friend about it and sure enough, every time I heard from him, I had a terror.
    We no longer communicate and I haven’t had a terror since. I’m still not entirely sure why the relationship induced night terrors but obviously it caused me distress subconsciously. I tried to talk to him and get to the bottom of it but he was closed off about it. So ending the friendship was the only option and I think standing up for myself and establishing healthy boundaries is what I needed to do all along.

  4. I'm having night terrors since my husband passed away when I turn the lights off in my room I feel something in the room I tried screaming for help it woke me up I couldn't go back to sleep I have to sleep with the light on or I won't go to sleep it happens frequently

  5. Hello my name aleena i am a signal mouther of 2 kids. I am 28 years old. I shouting out in my sleep but i carnt remember them. Happend for 4weeks now. Did have them before that but somehow they stopped. It now annoyong me as im having really bad unbroke sleep. I used to sleep walk when i was a child too.

  6. I keep having these night terrors where slowly everyone around me that I love dies off one by one and iam left in the world completely and totally alone!, does anyone know what this might mean ...my aunt had just passed away and then I started having them and then last week lost anouther person in my family and they still continue...Making me fearful of sleeping...I wake up crying or else wake up knowing I have been thrashing around because my hair is in knots...I’m just trying to figure out what they mean.

  7. Good morning, I have been awake since 3.15am. I fell asleep in the chair. I woke up startled but before I woke up I was shaking and crying and trying to lift my head up but I couldn't. I suffer from eupd,cptsd,anxiety and paranoia. I feel so weird now, disorientated even. Please can you help me understand this.

  8. This is in response to Sue, T's suggestion to try a weighted blanket and red jasper and also to Hugh T's long and honest post as well as an update on my personal struggles with night terrors. A couple months ago I started taking my Lipitor in the morning instead of at night. (Lipitor is one of six common meds associated with nightmares.) I'm drinking way less caffeine and not drinking coffee after 10 am. I resumed having 8-12 ounces of beer in the evening but if the beer is strong I think it affects my night terrors.

    T, someone gave me a weighted blanket (weighted with 15 pounds of glass beads) this past Christmas and it has made a HUGE difference. (I wish I had read your suggestion earlier!) I can't explain why. I still have occasional mild versions of night terrors but nothing like before. Your experience with red jasper is interesting. I think that strong belief in anything can be a positive thing; however, I believe, for instance, it's difficult to understand what power a Zuni bear fetish (which I own) has unless you're Zuni. I have not tried CBD but I did try melatonin years ago. I've awakened at 3 am for years. I usually read my Kindle in bed for an hour and then fall asleep.

    Hugh, I find near death experiences very interesting. (You're probably familiar with Dr. Eben Alexander's fascinating book, Proof of Heaven, about his NDE.) I happen to be a physician who believes there are things we cannot explain. Personally I lean towards a physiologic explanation for night terrors but I understand and respect that your belief in a loving source provides you comfort. (I also can relate to trying to forgive oneself.) I've tried positive imaging (a kind of cognitive behavior modification) on my own without luck. I agree that exercise, good diet and a good sleep routine are important.

    Sue, sleep apnea requires CPAP or some version of it. There are newer, fancier versions of CPAP. If the one you're using sucks, see if your sleep specialist can order another.

  9. Two nights ago I had a very distressing night terror. It's not the first one, but I believe I've only had a couple in my life previously and they would have been mild in comparison. I have only very vague recollections of those, and no one I've lived with in past has ever said they've heard me screaming in the night. I've never sleep-walked, and almost never have nightmares or scary dreams.

    That said, I have had many instances of sleep paralysis, usually during overly long daytime naps. Those experiences are not frightening and usually I'm able to wake up my body with some effort by moving an appendage or making vocalizations that wake me up. When I was about age 15-16, I had a couple of what I call near out-of-body experiences because I didn't actually separate from my body, but instead experienced the sensation of being able to push my hand through the bedroom wall and into my bed mattress.

    Now at age 52, I've never been diagnosed with any mental illnesses, although there is some history among siblings of schizophrenia. I am not religious, and consider myself a scientific/rational person and have published several papers in scientific journals with co-authors and as the sole author. I hope to publish more papers in the future. I also have a deep appreciation for the arts and humanities. I am a career civil servent with an undergraduate Bachelor of Professional Arts degree and I am currently working on a Master of Law degree. In general my professional work is well-recognized among colleagues, and recently received a relatively prestigious award for my work. I've been in a stable relationship for 12 years, though divorced previously after 9 years.

    I say this to establish my credibility, since what I am about to say may appear to some as irrational.

    It is worth noting that in past I have been a competitive cyclist and runner and been on national teams for the sport of duathlon. In the last couple of years I have spent much time training for indoor rowing. So, much of my energy in life has been devoted to disciplined training regimes and a lifestyle that supports optimal and healthy athletic performance, including limited alcohol use and no use of recreational or banned performance enhancing substances. In past I have also been involved in community theatre and choirs.

    In the last couple of years, I've become very interested in near-death experiences (NDE). I've listened to dozens of interviews from experiencers and respected researchers on the subject, and read many more first-hand accounts and much published research on the subject. From my own research into NDEs, combined with my teenage near out-of-body experiences, I am fairly convinced that there is an infinitely loving source through which all things are connected; that there is an immaterial aspect to human consciousness that is separate from the body and reunifies with the all-loving source when we die. In this way, consciousness resides in the body and experiences human existence, including the processes within our immensely complex brain and its ability to learn, process information and problem solve, and to facilitate sophisticated methods for resource-consumptions and complex social dynamics. We may call this immaterial consciousness the "soul" or "spirit", and currently the exact nature of the spirit is outside scientific theory and testable scientific methods. This need not always be the case and in future we may well come to a materialist/scientific understanding of the nature of the spirit.

    So, back to my night terror. I've been struggling to articulate what preceded my episode of screaming at 2:00 am that caused my partner to jump on top of me to hold me down and call out my name to bring me out of it. I've been thinking of it rather in terms of what NDE experiencers describe in their accounts of a "life-review" during the death experience. Common accounts are that during this life-review, the NDE'er empathically experiences what others felt during their interactions with the NDE'er. This means the NDE'er feels exactly the hurt (and joy) felt by others due to things the NDE'er may have said or done. These accounts from NDE'ers have led me to think a lot these last couple of years about things I may have done to hurt others in my life, and recently I'm finding things randomly pop into my mind of yet another instance, long forgotten, when I did or said something that must have been hurtful.

    NDE'ers tell us they've learned that we need to learn to forgive ourselves and to allow ourselves to live fully, knowing very well how we are prone to mistakes and to hurting others, while seeking to live compassionately and by expressing and learning love for all things. After all, in the end when we die there is no judgment or atonement, just the all-loving source to greet us, and this is the same for everyone.
    Even so, for me, I've been highly self-critical these last couple of years for the things I've done to hurt others.

    How does this connect to my recent night terror? Well, on one hand, the terror was triggered by what felt like my spirit being sucked into a black vortex so my body would be left alive but soulless or perhaps open to being taken over by some other kind of malevolent spirit. In a way, that describes the experience, but I prefer to think of it more akin to feeling the hurt I've caused everyone in my life condensed into a single point of twisting blackness as it is revealed suddenly in my awareness at 2:00 am while sleeping.

    Connecting this back to NDEs, a small percentage of NDE accounts are distressing ones in which some describe the experience as hellish. Distressing NDEs are difficult to reconcile with the vast majority of accounts in which an infinitely loving source and/or deceased loved ones or relatives greet the NDE'er and he/she has access to near infinite knowledge. Some NDE'ers and researchers regard hellish NDEs as incomplete, or reflecting a state which the experiencer can choose to be released from by a simple prayer to the loving source for release. From my recent night terror, I suggest that the hellish experience may be something like my description in which the sum-total of all the hurt I have caused others is condensed and revealed in an instant of intense awareness.

    Another frightening element of my night terror is the seeming ease with which I might be able to repeat the experience. After my partner awoke me that night, I was awake for about two hours with the sense of riding the edge of the trigger and the terror itself all over again, perhaps even in an awake state. I told my partner that I was scared that it would happen again. This prospect was doubly distressing, since at that point a similar waking experience would have been not just a parasomnia, but something more like a severe psychotic breakdown. Nonetheless, eventually I fell back asleep without incident, and have since had two good nights of sleep.

    However, I must say that I have been inclined to ask for help from the all-loving source -- that night before finally getting back to sleep, and since -- and there were moments before falling asleep these last two nights when the first inklings of the experience were forming just as I was starting to fall asleep. It was as though you could see the funnel cloud for a tornado just beginning to form but is then pulled back before the tornado actually forms. It does feel like my having asked for "help" has led to intervention from the all-loving source to keep the experience from developing, allowing me to get a good nights' sleep.

    Having said that, the scientist part of me says the experience is caused by hormonol and/or certain neuro-chemical imbalances, and however I choose to describe the experience subjectively doesn't really matter if the chemical triggers can be controlled, and I do think this is true. This would be achieved through reducing environmental cues and activities that generate brain states that become sensitive to the night terror experience. I suggest avoiding anti-depressents due to their potential side-effects, and turning to those only as a last resort. Instead one should research how your diet may be modified (e.g. trying magnesium/calcium pills or similar) along with regular exercise and a regular sleep routine. All these things may help to recalibrate brain chemical balances to reduce the state that triggers night terrors.

    However, I also argue that we should not dismiss or discount the spiritual element of these experiences (I cannot speak to other psychological triggers, which obviously should not be discounted either). If, as I believe, consciousness is separate from the human body and brain, then night terrors are experienced both in the body/brain and by the spirit, as are all human experiences. If the experiences can be controlled by asking for help from our spiritual source, then we ought to try doing so. For me, when I've done so, I often feel a calming tingly sensation on my skin like static electricity that pulls up the hairs on my arms and legs - and in doing so I can sleep. I'm hopeful that night terrors will not be repeating over the long-term. I can't imagine what it must be like dealing with these experiences long-term. I feel for those in that position and I hope you can find some relief.

    I'm interested in hearing from others whose experiences/perspectives resonates with theirs. Please feel free to email me at h.a.trenchard@gmail.com

  10. I scream,kick,fiddle fingers and hands, running while sleeping. It goes on all night and my husband or I end up on the couch, I went to a sleep Dr. And went in and was tested and I'm on cpac now. It found out I was stop poo ing breathing 45 times an hour. I'm so frustrated because my dr. Just keep using machine and take melatonin. This is not good on my marriage. Should I have my brain checked or something? I dont want to go to sleep because I know it'll be doing this and waking my husband up. I'm 62 and this just started about 12 months ago. PLEASE ANY HELP. IS APPRECIATED.

  11. I am so sorry to hear that. Have you tried a weighted blanket, melatonin or CBD? And maybe journaling before bed. Try sleeping with a red jasper crystal or black tourmaline crystal, since you move around in your sleep. I would suggest a necklace or bracelet form.

    I recently started having night terrors as an adult. And used to have nightmares and sleepwalk. The first one, I felt intensely when my red jasper grounding crystal dropped from my hands, this is why I suggest jewelry form. But red jasper is great for grounding and easing the body while you sleep.

  12. I can relate to the first dozen or so comments. I was a sleep walker as a child. I've had sleep terrors since my 30s but worse in the last few months--falling out of bed, kicking my wife, shouting in my sleep. (I'm 68.) I've cut way back on caffeine and given up my one beer in the evening 🙁
    Seemed to help some. Retired so I'm not particularly stressed. Going to try taking my Lipitor in the AM instead of PM. May try CBT(cognitive behavioral therapy). May do a sleep study. Had one years ago that was normal.

  13. I have experienced night terrors in the past (since I was approximately 17 years old...I am now 37). During these episodes I have injured myself. I have woke screaming and jumped out of bed running across the room or jumping out of bed crashing into furniture. I have injured myself to the point of having visible bruises on my body and neck. The night terrors subside for periods of time but now they're starting to come back. The last few nights I have woke up to monsters in my face and the feeling of shear terror. I keep seeing images of my infant daughter being hurt or killed which wakes me. I am having a difficult time coping with this.

  14. Karen Hannahyou are having Sleep paralysis lots of people describe it as being paralyzed and having an old lady watching them. Sounds terrifying. My sister has had it happen. It's fairly common.

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