- Night terrors are a sleep condition that involves thrashing, screaming, or panicking in your sleep.
- In adults, they can be caused by sleep deprivation, alcohol misuse, and PTSD.
- Children normally grow out of night terrors, but adults might need therapy or medication for treatment.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
If your family or roommates informed you that you scream, thrash, or visibly panic in your sleep, you may be experiencing night terrors.
While rare, night terrors can affect both children and adults, though children tend to outgrow night terrors as they get older.
Oddly enough, those who sleep alone might have no idea they had an episode, which can be dangerous.
“Serious and even deadly injury can occur. Attempts to escape from bed or to fight can result in harm to the patient or others,” says Rajkumar Dasgupta, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine.
Here’s what you need to know about the symptoms, causes, and treatment of night terrors.
What are night terrors?
Night terrors are a type of parasomnia, which are sleep disorders that cause abnormal or unusual behaviors during sleep. They’re often triggered by stress, fever, or sleep deprivation.
Night terror vs nightmare: Nightmares and night terrors happen at different stages of the sleep cycle. The former occurs during the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which occurs in the second half of sleep, but the latter happens during non-REM, which happens in the first half of sleep. Night terrors aren’t technically a dream. You’ll likely wake up from a nightmare, but remain asleep during a night terror episode.
According to Dasgupta, night terrors can vary from 10 to 40 minutes. During that time, you may experience plenty of symptoms.
- Screaming, shouting, kicking, or thrashing in bed
- Eyes wide open with a look of intense fear
- Heavy breathing, sweating, and having a racing pulse
- Difficulty waking up
- Having little to no memory of the episode the next morning
- Getting out of bed to run around, possibly exhibiting aggressive behavior when restrained
It’s best not to wake someone who is experiencing an episode because they might accidentally hurt you or themselves. To avoid potential harm, ensure that the room is free of clutter, remove any sharp objects, and keep the person away from windows or stairs.
Mood conditions, like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, can interfere with sleep and make night terrors more likely to occur.
There is a strong genetic link when it comes to night terrors, says Dasgupta. Individuals with a family history of the condition are likely to inherit the same trait, but potential triggers are influenced by their environment.
How night terrors differ in children
Night terrors are more common in children than adults and occur about 1% to 7% of the time. Only 2% of adults may experience these episodes. While adults may remember very vague details of what the night terror was about, children won’t usually remember anything in the morning.
- Poor sleep
- Too much caffeine
- Change in medication
- Sleeping in an unfamiliar environment
Children will outgrow night terrors eventually, but if a person develops night terrors in adulthood, there are plenty of available treatments that they can try.
- Addressing or eliminating the trigger: Treating the underlying medical conditions that affect sleep can minimize the occurrence of night terrors.
- Practicing good sleeping habits: Getting about seven to nine hours of sleep every night is crucial. It’s also beneficial to establish a consistent and relaxing bedtime routine, like avoiding the use of electronics or eating large meals before bed. “Improving your sleep quality can certainly help,” says Dasgupta.
- Seeing a therapist: Night terrors may be caused by stress and mood disorders as well, so it’s important to seek support from a mental health professional. You can use the SAMHSA Services Locator to check for facilities around your area.
- Trying anticipatory awakening: Try videotaping yourself to observe your night terrors habits. If you find that the timing is fairly consistent, set an alarm to wake up about 15 minutes before you typically experience an episode, and then go back to sleep a few minutes later. This may help you avoid an episode during that night. You can also ask someone else to wake you up.
- Taking medications: For some people, taking sedatives or benzodiazepines (like Valium or Xanax) is effective against night terrors, but keep in mind that they are rarely used to treat it. Melatonin may help, but it’s more likely for the doctor to address the sleeping habits instead of recommending supplements or medicine, says Dasgupta.
If night terror episodes occur more than once a week, put you in harm’s way, and cause you to have problems functioning in the daytime, you need to see a sleep doctor or specialist.
Night terrors are different from nightmares because you don’t typically wake up during a night terror episode. If you do wake up, you likely won’t remember the dream or might be generally confused as to what happened. You may experience symptoms like screaming, kicking, or running around with your eyes wide open while remaining asleep.
There is a genetic risk to night terrors, but sleep deprivation, alcohol misuse, and mood disorders can also increase its likelihood. To minimize episodes and improve sleep quality, it helps to eliminate triggers and develop good sleeping habits.
“Individuals may be embarrassed by the sleep terrors. This can greatly affect their relationships with others,” says Dasgupta. “If your sleep is being disrupted and this affects your daytime functioning, it’s important to discuss this with a medical professional.”
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