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

  1. I woke up with my husband wailing and running out of the room saying that something is chasing him. I was so confused and I thought I was just dreaming and seeing things. I called to him and no response. I started crying because I had no idea what was going on. He came back a few minutes later saying he didn't know what happened or what he was even dreaming about.Like stated, I think he suffered amnesia. His brother actually sleep walks occasionally so that might be linked to it. The weird thing is, I was dreaming something being off and creepy about the bedroom door and then I woke up to him running out. It doesn't sound creepy but we both couldn't sleep for the longest time after that. It was traumatic for me because I couldn't do anything about it.

  2. I just woke up from a night terror. It happens to me infrequently, but it has happened to me more than a few times in the past few years. The same thing happens every time. I wake up in a frenzied panic, usually yelling "No! No! No!" Followed by a string of explatives. My heart is racing. I feel as though I have forgotten or neglected something extremely important and that my subconscious has given me a rude awakening. It feels VERY real, in fact, I am convinced that it is, but as hard as I try to make sense of it, I can't. It's like the moment I awake it seems crystal clear, but as soon as I am awake, the idea that drove me to awaken has disintegrated into a vague patchwork and I can't fill in the holes. It's frustrating, because I continue to believe that I am really forgetting something important, but I can't remember.

    I'm in my 30's and have a history of depression, anxiety, bipolar, and ADHD. I am often forgetful in everyday life, and I often fear that my mind will deteriorate like my father, who had dementia before he passed. My mom sometimes sleepwalks or wakes up in a similarly distressed state, usually about work. I usually sleep through the night, but I never wake up feeling refreshed, and was diagnosed once with mild sleep apnea, but refused to wear a CPAP. Sometimes when I'm just about to fall asleep I "kick" myself awake. I haven't had a dream in many years.

    I don't usually drink much alcohol or caffeine, but I just did both, right before bed. I have horrible sleep habits and usually go to bed extremely late and don't get enough sleep. This time, I hadn't even gone to bed, but had briefly fallen asleep during a movie. I know based on how far along that I wasn't asleep long, maybe 30 mins at most. I don't feel like I'll be able to fall back asleep anytime soon because of the adrenaline rush, even though it was almost an hour ago at this point.

  3. 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.

    1. I am sorry you have experienced this. I have experienced what seems to be a similar thing. The only help has been saying the name of Jesus. His blood makes all evil flee. I felt like I was being suffocated and I could barely speak, but as soon as I whispered “Jesus” I could fully breathe and my room was peaceful.

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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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