Nothing derails a good night’s sleep faster than being gripped by a suffocating feeling of dread and fear. While bad dreams and nightmares are a common occurrence, night terrors are in a league of their own.
During a night terror episode, you might appear to wake up and show signs of distress, but you won’t have any recollection of it.
Much like nightmares, recurring night terrors can disrupt your sleep and take a toll on your health. Let’s take a deeper look at what night terrors are, the causes, and how to manage them.
What are Night Terrors?
Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, are brief nocturnal episodes where you feel intense fear while sleeping, prompting a physical reaction.
The person experiencing these terrors will usually thrash around or cry out in distress. Though they can be unsettling to witness, night terror episodes are only a cause for concern if you experience them frequently or if it poses a safety risk.
Though night terrors in children are more common, an estimated 2% of adults also experience them. The percentage might seem low, but the exact number is challenging to identify because most people have a tough time recollecting these episodes when they wake up.
Night terrors come under a branch of abnormal sleep behaviors known as parasomnia. Other behaviors that are classified under parasomnia include sleepwalking, sleep talking, and sleep paralysis.
What is the Difference Between Nightmares and Night Terrors?
Though fear is the common emotion associated with nightmares and night terrors, there are several differences between the two.
Simply put, a nightmare is a bad dream that occurs during the REM sleep stage, which is associated with dreaming. On the other hand, night terrors occur during stage 3 of NREM sleep, also known as the deep sleep stage. This difference is the main reason why it might be tougher to wake a person who’s experiencing sleep terrors. By contrast, it’s relatively easy to snap someone out of a dream or nightmare.
Another key difference between the two is that you’re likely to remember some details of your dream when you wake up from a nightmare. However, those who experience night terror episodes might not recollect anything upon waking up.
Symptoms of Night Terrors
Typically, night terrors occur within the first three hours of sleep and only last a few minutes. The symptoms of these episodes include:
- Racing heartbeat
- Rapid breathing
- Staring wide-eyed
- Tough to awaken
- Thrashing limbs
- Profuse sweating
- Not recollecting the event upon waking
What Causes Night Terrors in Adults?
The exact cause of night terrors in adults is difficult to identify, but here are some factors that may play a role.
If you have a family member who experiences night terrors, then you might be genetically predisposed to experiencing them, as well.
A study published in 1980 found that 96% of people who reported having night terrors had at least one close family member who also experienced them. Another study conducted on 390 pairs of identical and fraternal twins found that night terrors can be attributed to genetics.
In identical twins, researchers found that the chances of both siblings experiencing these episodes were much higher because they share nearly identical genes. On the other hand, fraternal twins do not, and though the risk of both siblings experiencing night terrors was lower, the study suggests that the risk is still there.
Those who suffer from sleep apnea, asthma, or other respiratory problems are more likely to experience night terrors, but there’s no concrete explanation for why this happens. One study found that disordered breathing triggers a night terror episode because the body experiences a spike of arousal when the person stops breathing.
Night terrors can be triggered by several other factors, including:
- Sleep deprivation
- Medications, such as antidepressants
- Alcohol use
- Restless leg syndrome
- Extreme tiredness
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
How to Treat and Prevent Night Terrors
Night terrors can be alarming, but they’re usually not a sign of anything serious. For that reason, they may not necessarily require treatment unless it’s frequent, disruptive to your sleep, or causing you unintended harm. For effective treatment, it’s essential to identify the cause. Here are some of our top tips for reducing the occurrence of night terrors and managing them.
Since fatigue and sleep deprivation are two possible causes of night terrors, it’s essential to get enough sleep. Adults need at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep every day, so try to establish a regular sleep schedule and follow it even on the weekends.
It’s also important to practice healthy sleep habits, so try to limit your alcohol and caffeine intake and avoid screens before bedtime. Instead, do something that’s relaxing, such as taking a warm bath or journaling.
Create a Safe Sleep Setup
One of the common symptoms of night terrors is sleepwalking, so it’s essential to create a safe sleep environment to minimize the risk of injuries. If you’re prone to experiencing night terrors, try placing your bed on the floor.
Sleeping on the floor could be uncomfortable, so be sure to invest in the most comfortable mattress to enjoy a good night’s rest. A hybrid mattress is an excellent option for those who want the support of traditional innerspring combined with the contouring capabilities of memory foam.
To prevent injury, it might also be helpful to lock your door and declutter your bedroom so that you don’t trip over anything.
If you experience sleep terrors regularly, then the best way to control them is by identifying a pattern. Keep a sleep diary and try to make a note of anything you can remember about when the episode occurs and how long it lasts. In case you notice that your episodes follow a discernible pattern, you can try a technique known as scheduled awakening.
All you need to do is set an alarm or ask your partner to wake you up 10 to 15 minutes before your night terror episode occurs. Try to stay awake for a few minutes before going back to sleep.
Try Relaxation Techniques
Going to bed stressed or anxious may trigger night terrors, so try to find some ways to decompress before you turn in for the night. One helpful technique for stress relief is progressive muscle relaxation.
This exercise involves tensing your muscles first, relaxing them, and repeating the process until you feel completely calm. Ideally, you should practice progressive muscle relaxation for at least 15 minutes, either before you go to bed or while lying down.
Try this exercise by tensing and relaxing your muscles in 10-second intervals. Start with each foot and slowly work your way up, breathing deeply as you go along. The idea behind this technique is that if your body is completely relaxed, your mind will be, too.
Night terrors are brief episodes that only last a few minutes, but if it happens frequently, they can disrupt your routine. Fortunately, a good night’s sleep is well within your reach. Start by getting to the root of your night terrors and identifying the cause. If the episodes persist, consider consulting a sleep specialist or therapist for professional advice.
Do you experience night terrors? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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Disclaimer. We love sleep and we want you to get the best sleep possible. But we do not provide medical advice. This blog is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical info, diagnosis, or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our blog.