If you’ve ever seen someone experience night terrors, you know what an unsettling ordeal it can be. Although night terrors are harmless, people who suffer from them will often scream, kick and thrash in their sleep, which can be alarming to watch.
To help you learn more about this condition, we’ve put together this quick guide to discuss what causes night terrors (it’s often things like sleep apnea or sleep deprivation) and how to stop night terrors.
What Are Night Terrors?
It’s a common question: what is a night terror? In summary, night terrors or sleep terrors are a form of sleep disorder that often affects children (although they can happen to people of any age). They typically occur during the first half of sleep at night, during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) phases of sleep.
Night terrors are a kind of parasomnia, which are disruptive sleep disorders that cause a person to act abnormally while sleeping. During a night terror, a person might suddenly sit up or stand up in bed, scream or cry. Oftentimes, they won’t remember the episode when they wake up the next morning.
What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of Night Terrors?
There are several key signs and symptoms that someone might be having a night terror. A person suffering from night terrors might:
- Wake up suddenly. Someone experiencing a night terror might quickly sit up in bed and seem to be awake, even though they aren’t.
- Scream or cry. This is one of the clearest indications that they’re having a night terror.
- Lash out physically. The person will try to hit, kick or attack during their episode. In some cases, they might leave the bed and become aggressive if you restrain them.
- Sweat. A flushed appearance and increased heart rate are also common symptoms.
- Appear confused. Since they aren’t awake, they might be disoriented or unaware of their surroundings.
What Causes Night Terrors?
Understanding what causes night terrors is important, whether you’re suffering from them yourself or trying to help a loved one. There are common contributing factors across all age groups, but in certain instances, what causes night terrors in children is different from what causes night terrors in adults.
Some of the reasons why someone might experience night terrors include:
- Sleep-disordered breathing, including sleep apnea
- Lack of sleep or a severely disrupted sleep schedule
- Depression and anxiety
- Restless legs syndrome (RLS)
- Some types of medication
- Substance abuse
In addition to these factors, people with a family history of sleep disorders, including sleepwalking and night terrors, might be more likely to experience them.
Who Is Affected By Night Terrors?
People of all ages and genders can be affected by night terrors. However, there are some groups that experience this sleep disorder more often than others. Let’s take a look at how night terrors can impact people of various ages.
According to medical experts, night terrors are common in children and pre-teens. Little ones from the ages three to twelve seem to be the most affected age group among children, with the peak age for experiencing them being 3 ½ years old. While parents might get a bit shaken up from watching their son or daughter have a night terror, there’s a good chance that the child won’t recall the episode.
Most kids will outgrow their recurring night terrors by the time they reach their teenage years. In a 2014 study, researchers found that less than 5% of parasomnias will continue into adolescence. However, it’s possible that teens could still suffer from them, particularly if they have a family history, sleep deprivation or certain mood disorders.
Once you reach adulthood, you’re far less likely to experience night terrors — but it isn’t unheard of for adults to have them once in a while. According to the Cleveland Clinic, as many as 3% of adults deal with night terrors. If you regularly consume alcohol to excess or lead a highly stressful life, you could be putting yourself at a greater risk of experiencing night terrors.
Night Terror vs. Nightmare
Nearly everyone has nightmares from time to time, but the percentage of people who have night terrors is much lower. Night terrors occur during non-REM sleep, and people who have them usually don’t remember the experience. On the other hand, nightmares happen while someone is in REM sleep, and a person might remember small or large pieces of their nightmare when they wake up. Nightmares also tend to occur during the second half of the night.
How To Treat Night Terrors
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for how to stop night terrors. However, there are some measures you can take to reduce the likelihood that you or your child will experience them. In case night terrors occur, there are also steps you can take to minimize the harm caused during the episode.
Get Enough Sleep
Sleep deprivation or a disrupted sleep schedule is often to blame for night terrors. Not only is getting enough sleep a helpful way to prevent night terrors, but it’s also critical to maintaining your overall health — particularly for children.
Without proper sleep, you could develop serious mental and physical health problems (in addition to night terrors). Sleep deprivation has also been connected to increased levels of stress, relationship issues and lowered immunity.
Reduce Stress Levels
If you or your child is dealing with stress, you could be at a higher risk of experiencing night terrors. Seek out healthy stress-relieving activities, such as physical exercise, quality time with friends and family or creative outlets in order to reduce the chance of night terrors occurring.
You can also try to create a comfortable and soothing environment around bedtime by diffusing essential oils or sipping on a warm cup of decaffeinated tea. Avoid alcohol and other stimulants since they can worsen your sleep quality and increase the likelihood of night terrors.
Create A Safe Environment
If you or your child have been known to act erratically or aggressively during night terror episodes, make sure your home is safe in anticipation of these events. Limit the possibility for injuries by putting away sharp or dangerous items, locking windows and doors and removing tripping hazards.
Similarly, if you’re comforting someone going through a night terror, don’t try to wake them or prevent them from moving. Instead, remain calm and speak to them in a gentle and encouraging manner.
When Should I See A Doctor?
Most people don’t need to visit a doctor if their night terrors are infrequent or mild. However, if you or a loved one is having frequent night terrors that last for an extended length of time (about 30 minutes or longer), you should speak with your doctor or pediatrician. The same applies if the night terrors are negatively impacting your life. Your doctor might prescribe medication or refer you to a therapist to get to the root of the problem.
Even though night terrors can be jarring for parents and partners, they aren’t dangerous to the person who is experiencing them (unless they begin to act violently). In most cases, the episode will resolve on its own in a couple of minutes. Fortunately, most children who deal with night terrors won’t experience them beyond adolescence.
By taking precautionary measures such as reducing stress and getting more sleep, you can minimize the risk of night terrors occurring for yourself or your child. If this condition begins to disrupt your life, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with your physician and discuss your treatment options.