Night Terrors: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

April 4, 2024

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Night terrors trigger an intense fear response, abruptly waking individuals from sleep. Studies show that roughly one in three young children will experience night terrors. Although the occurrence of night terrors decreases after the age of ten, adults may also experience this phenomenon. This guide explores the causes of night terrors, compares this condition to nightmares, and shows you how to get help managing sleep-related issues that are impacting your mental health.

What Are Night Terrors?

Night terrors, sometimes described as sleep terrors, induce an extreme sense of panic or fear in individuals, abruptly rousing them from sleep. Those undergoing a night terror episode often sit upright, leap out of bed, or scream. Other signs of night terrors include sweating, accelerated heart rate, and enlarged pupils.

Episodes can persist for between 10 and 30 minutes. During this time, it’s often difficult for others to soothe the person experiencing the night terror. In most cases, the person has no memory of the event afterward.

Night terrors are classified as parasomnias, sleep disorders characterized by abnormal movements or behaviors during sleep. Night terrors usually manifest during the NREM (non-rapid eye movement) phase of sleep. This phase includes both light sleep and deep sleep stages but excludes the REM (rapid eye movement) phase, which is known for intense dreaming. Night terrors are mainly observed during the first third of the night, especially in children.

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Night Terrors vs. Nightmares

Night terrors and nightmares are distinct experiences. When someone has nightmares, they usually wake feeling scared and can often recall the disturbing dream in vivid detail. Someone experiencing night terrors, by contrast, may wake in a state of fear, but they usually have no recall of the dream and may not even remember waking during the night.

Night terrors manifest during the NREM stages of sleep, while nightmares usually happen during the REM phase. This timing means that night terrors normally occur during the first part of the night when NREM sleep predominates. Nightmares, on the other hand, are more likely to occur in the latter part of the night.

What Causes Night Terrors?

Night terrors are believed to occur during a partial awakening where a person is caught in a liminal state – that is, hovering between sleep and full consciousness. This transitional phase is why night terrors are sometimes referred to as an NREM disorder of arousal parasomnia. Possible causes of night terrors include:

  • Age: Night terrors are most commonly observed in young children and tend to decrease in frequency with age, often disappearing by adolescence.
  • Genetic predisposition: There is evidence to suggest that genetics may play a part in someone’s tendency toward parasomnias.
  • Sleep disorders: Conditions that disrupt sleep, causing brief awakenings throughout the night, such as obstructive sleep apnea and periodic limb movement disorder (which may be related to restless legs syndrome), are associated with night terrors.
  • Anxiety: In children, night terrors have been linked to separation anxiety. Adults suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or other mood disorders may also have an increased susceptibility to night terrors.
  • Sleep deprivation: Lack of sleep can lead to an increase in the amount of deep sleep on subsequent nights. As night terrors are more common during deep sleep, sleep deprivation can heighten the risk of experiencing them.
  • Fever: Fevers can induce more deep sleep, potentially increasing the likelihood of night terrors occurring.
man waking up representing night terror symptoms

Night Terror Symptoms

The characteristics signs of night terrors episodes may include:

  • Loud screaming and shouting
  • Getting up from bed
  • Sleepwalking
  • Limbs flailing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Accelerated heartbeat
  • Heavy sweating
  • Eyes dilated
  • Difficulty awakening the sleeper
  • Appearing awake with wide-open eyes but not reacting to surroundings
  • Disorientation upon awakening
  • No memory of the episode

In the rare instances where someone remembers a dream following a night terror, it’s typically centered around intensely fearful content.

Night Terrors Treatment

While night terrors can seem alarming, especially in children, they generally don’t cause lasting harm and often resolve on their own without medications. Gently holding the child’s hand and speaking in soothing tones can often help diminish the intensity of an episode.

Intervention is usually only considered necessary if night terrors significantly impact the individual’s safety or if they interfere with daytime functioning.

If treatment is required, the following approaches can be beneficial:

  • Addressing underlying conditions: Treatment for conditions like sleep apnea or mental health issues may alleviate night terrors.
  • Improving sleep practices: Adjusting sleep routines or the sleeping environment can enhance sleep quality and reduce the occurrence of night terrors.
  • Medication: In certain situations, medications such as benzodiazepines or SSRIs (serotonin reuptake inhibitors) might be beneficial.
  • Stress management: Therapy or counseling can be effective in managing stress, which may in turn reduce the frequency of night terrors.

FAQs

What is a night terror?

A night terror is an intense sleep disturbance which causes feelings of dread or terror, usually occurring during non-REM sleep stages. Those experiencing night terrors may scream, thrash around, or appear frightened while still asleep, yet they often have little or no recall of the event when they wake up. Although this phenomenon mainly occurs in children, night terrors in adults may also occur.

Why do night terrors happen?

Night terrors, a type of sleep disorder, manifest due to over-arousal the central nervous system during sleep. They may be triggered by fatigue, stress, sleep deprivation, and certain medications.

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Get Treatment for Night Terrors at Connections

If anxiety and sleep issues have been complicating your life, reach out to Connections Mental Health for compassionate, evidence-based treatment.

Sleep issues can permeate all areas of life, so we can help you improve sleep hygiene during inpatient treatment at our luxury beachside facility. We can also help you combat anxiety through personalized treatments that may include medications, counseling, psychotherapies, and holistic interventions.

When you are ready to address night terrors and anxiety, improve well-being, and restore everyday functioning, call Connections at 844-759-0999.

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