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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
© 2021 American Sleep Association.