Night Terrors

The Difference between Nightmares and Night Terrors (or Sleep Terror)

A parasomnia disorder, such as night terrors, affects a person’s perception, emotions or behavior while he or she is sleeping. Night terrors cause a person to feel dread or fear during the early stages of sleep, usually occurring a few hours after the person has gone to bed. The condition is often confused with nightmares, or bad dreams, and occurs mostly in kids under the age of 6. Approximately 1 to 8 out of every 10 children has experienced night terrors in their lifetime, although adults are sometimes also affected.

While nightmares are very common and usually come and go in bouts when children are young, night terrors are characterized usually by sudden strikes of fear during sleep. People affected by night terrors might sit upright in their beds very quickly, with an expression of panic on their faces, sweat covering their bodies and hearts beating rapidly. Often, screaming ensues, even though the person is only half conscious and may look confused and act unreasonably. Parents who try to console children experiencing a night terror might discover that their own child does not recognize them in the current state of mind. It may be difficult to understand the child, who may get out of bed and start to run or kick violently.

While the cause of either nightmares or night terrors is not clear, there has been much evidence that shows the conditions might have a genetic component that makes it more common among certain family members. Environmental and circumstantial triggers such as stress, fatigue, illness or fever may also precede many episodes of night terrors. Underlying sleep disorders or medical conditions may also play an important role, such as in the case that an adult with sleep apnea consistently fails to achieve deep sleep and is experiencing strong symptoms of sleep deprivation, including stress or depression, as a result. Note, however, that night terrors is not a mental condition—although adult patients who suffer episodes often also display symptoms of depression, like anger, anxiety and passivity.

Treating Night Terrors in Adults and Children

Usually, night terrors come and go inconsistently and do not need heavy medical attention in order to be treated. Symptoms often go away naturally if the person’s routine eating and sleeping schedules are shifted and regulated, either through a person’s own self-will or with the help of parents and other family members for younger patients. Some behavioral training techniques have also been successful among some patients, which include psychotherapy, counseling, listening to calm music and being awakened just before the peak of the night terror occurs, so that the sleeping person’s cycle is broken, or interrupted. Most sleep experts do not recommend taking medication to treat night terrors, so contact a sleep doctor for more information about your options.