What are Night Terrors?
Night terrors — also known as sleep terrors — are a type of sleep disorder. They are a form of parasomnia, which is an abnormal occurrence during sleep. Sleepwalking and sleep paralysis are also forms of parasomnia (x). A night terror seems similar to a nightmare, but is much more severe. The typical duration of a night terror extends from a few seconds to several minutes, but some may last even longer (x).
Anyone can experience sleep terrors, but they mainly occur in children (x). While night terrors usually are not a serious condition, they can be terrifying and distressing for both children and their families. Affected individuals may require a specialist if the sleep terrors pose a safety risk or affect sleeping patterns (x).
Night Terrors vs. Nightmares
During the course of a nightmare, one may wake up suddenly. In the case of night terrors, however, the person stays asleep. They also occur during different parts of the sleep cycle. Nightmares happen during deep REM sleep, while sleep terrors happen during lighter non-REM sleep. If someone wakes up from a nightmare, they will remember it. But if someone experiences a sleep terror, they are unaware of their surroundings and won’t remember waking up at all (x, x).
Characteristics of Night Terrors
Night terrors bear very similar symptoms to nightmares, but the behaviors are more severe. When an individual has a night terror, someone else may witness the symptoms because the person is still asleep and won’t remember the event (x, x).
- Screaming and shouting
- Thrashing and kicking
- Blank staring, but unresponsive
- Heavy sweating
- Rapid breathing
- Racing heart
- Wide eyes
- Dilated pupils
During a night terror, the individual may sit up suddenly in bed, appearing terrified and conscious, but will be hard to wake up. They may also have trouble taking deep breaths. The individual will usually fall into a very deep sleep after it’s over, but they will not remember any nightmares (x). Sleep terrors usually last for a few seconds to several minutes (x).
Causes & Risk Factors for Night Terrors
Night terrors happen when the central nervous system is over-aroused during sleep. Although rare, they may be a normal part of a child’s growth process because the central nervous system is still developing (x, x). But it could result from a number of factors as well (x).
- Sleeping in unfamiliar places
- Head injuries (x)
- Migraines (x)
- Lack of sleep
- Medication (x)
- Trauma (x)
Research suggests a genetic factor in sleep terrors and studies have shown that they actually run in families. In one study, 96 percent of participants had a relative who also experienced night terrors. The researchers concluded that environmental and heredity factors play a role in whether someone develops sleep terrors (x, x).
Night terrors and mental illness have been linked together as well. Adults with sleep terrors are likely to suffer from bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and depressive disorders (x). Researchers have also reported that people with schizophrenia often experience sleep disorders (x). Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also linked to sleep disorders, such as insomnia, sleepwalking and sleep terrors (x).
Night Terrors Treatment
In most cases, night terrors usually do not require any treatment, even though they are frightening. They do not usually cause permanent harm (x). Parents can prevent them by trying to reduce their children’s stress, making sure they go to bed early enough to get optimal sleep and creating a relaxing nighttime routine (x). However, the patient will require treatment if the sleep terrors develop from other factors, such as a head injury (x).
It can be difficult to comfort someone in a sleep terror. If someone wakes up during a night terror, they may be confused and take longer to relax and fall back asleep. It’s best to let the person fall asleep naturally, while trying to keep them from hurting themselves if they kick or thrash around (x).
If the case does require treatment, the patient may take antidepressants. Studies have found that antidepressant medications may help treat sleep terrors (x). Tricyclic and tetracyclic antidepressants, as well as monoamine oxidase inhibitors and serotonin reuptake inhibitors, can potentially treat sleep terrors (x). Studies have also found that prazosin is effective in treating PTSD, which can cause night terrors (x).
People with sleep terrors may also consider using natural remedies to promote better sleep, such as essential oils.
Supplements for Sleep Disorders
Studies have shown that melatonin regulates stress, aging and immunity, as well as sleep. The supplement can provide relief for insomnia and it also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties (x).
Valerian Root Extract
St. John’s Wort Extract Powder
The Bottom Line
Night terrors are most common in children and often confused with nightmares, as the symptoms seem similar. But night terrors cause more severe behaviors, such as kicking, beating or thrashing around. After a nightmare, the individual may wake up, but in a night terror the person is still asleep and won’t remember the event after they fall back asleep or when they wake up in the morning. Though sleep terrors are not usually a very serious condition and do not cause permanent harm, they can be frightening and distressful.
Several factors contribute to sleep terrors, including stress, trauma, medication or lack of sleep. They do not usually require specific treatment and children usually grow out of them as their central nervous system develops. However, individuals might seek medical attention if they pose a safety risk or affect sleep patterns. Antidepressant medications can treat sleep disorders, as well as natural remedies such as essential oils and supplements.