What are night terrors and how can you deal with them?

We all have nightmares, some of us more often than not. While nightmares can disrupt sleep, even when you are sleeping on the most comfortable mattress imaginable, night terrors are a different story all together.

Night terrors are considered to be a type of sleep disorder.
Night terrors are considered to be a type of sleep disorder.

Night terrors mostly affect children and they are usually not bad dreams per say. A night terror is the feeling of intense fear when waking up. As a child, I have vivid memories of waking up in terror and bolting from my bed, completely unsure of what scared me but having the overwhelming feeling of being absolutely terrified. The feeling is overbearing and often happens suddenly when you are absolutely not expecting it.

Night terrors have the ability to make going to sleep a terrifying experience, and because they are responsible for disrupting sleep, night terrors are considered to be a sleeping disorder. Also known as sleep terror, the feeling of fear usually occurs during the early stages of the sleep cycle.

Sleep terror has occurred throughout history

This sleeping condition was first recognised in ancient times, but before the ability to identify when in the sleep cycle it occurred, it was almost impossible to differentiate night terrors from your average nightmare. Occurring just before the brain enters into the deep sleep phase, night terrors have had even those from times long since passed waking to feelings of terror.

Did you know that a night terror can last up to 20 minutes?

Once a person experiences a night terror there are two things that can happen; they can either go straight back to sleep, slipping into the REM stage of sleep, or they can wake to confusion and terror. When people wake from the terror, they can experience a state of amnesia for a few moments and perhaps not recognise where they are, or even who they are. However, this state will usually disappear in the few moments after waking.

Who is affected by night terrors?

If you have never experienced a sleep terror episode, you are certainly not the only one. Only around 1 – 6% of people, and mostly children, experience this sleep disturbance, and not everyone recalls that they have had the sleep disorder. More common in children than in adults, this sleep condition is one that mostly affects children under the age of 7. In children who have sleep terrors, the possibility of them being sleepwalkers, or talking in their sleep, is prevalent.

The condition is one that is either brought on naturally, or it is one that is triggered by a traumatic experience, for instance, mine was the result of the death of a close family member. However, while children are the ones who are usually the most affected by night terrors, adults are not immune, with 2% of people having this sleep disorder in adulthood. When adults suffer from this form of sleep disorder, it is usually the result of a traumatic experience or a deeply emotional event in their lives. Those who have mental health issues are also more likely to have sleep disorders, including terrors.

Signs and symptoms associated with night terrors

One of the most important things you need to know about night terrors is that you should not try to wake a person who is having an episode. The best thing that you can do is stay with them until they either awaken or calm down, even though it can be deeply troubling to have to see a child or partner suffering in their sleep. By allowing a person to experience the sleep terror without waking them, they will feel more comfortable when the wake-up. This means that the terror the experience causes can be minimised.

It is quite easy to see when someone is having a night terror, as they display physical signs such as moaning, wailing and screaming. Seeing the look of terror and stress on a loved one’s face can be a heartbreaking thing, especially when you know that you have no control over what they are experiencing.

One good thing to keep in mind is that a night terror can do no physical harm. As a sleep disorder, it is only a minor mental disruption that is often completely forgotten.

Experiencing this type of sleep disorder can be very disturbing.
Experiencing this type of sleep disorder can be very distrurbing.

The best way to describe the feeling of a sleep terror experience is to liken it to a panic attack.

Signs of a night terror

If you think that you or your child might be experiencing sleep terrors, you will need to know what signs to keep a look out for. These are just a few of the things that you should keep a look out for:

  • Rapid, heavy breathing upon waking
  • Screaming
  • The overwhelming feeling of pure terror
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Thrashing about while sleeping
  • An attempt to protect themselves from something unseen
  • Appearing confused and upon waking being inconsolable
  • Sweating during sleep
  • Wide eyes and dilated pupils
  • Aggressive behaviour (in an attempt to protect themselves)

Symptoms can vary from person to person and not all of the symptoms need to be present for a person to be experiencing sleep terrors. There might come a time when it is necessary to see a doctor and get a proper diagnosis for what is happening.

As mentioned before, although this sleep disorder is not one that should be of a big concern, if you feel it is necessary for a doctor to be involved especially if certain characteristics are present, you can always consult with a medical professional. You should get the opinion of your doctor if:

  • The night terrors are becoming more common (i.e. if they are becoming more frequent).
  • The terrors are disrupting the sleep of the entire household.
  • The condition is creating a fear of going to sleep.
  • The condition is leading to harmful, dangerous behaviour.
  • There is a noticeable pattern every time there is an episode.
  • The sleep terror is continuing into adulthood.
Night terrors can cause a child to not want to sleep at night.
Night terrors can cause a child to not want to sleep at night.

The other causes of sleep terrors

While we have touched on a few of the causes of sleep terrors, there are other contributing factors that can play a role in the frequency and the severity of the night terrors. Here are some of the other factors that you should be considering:

  • Extreme tiredness
  • Fever (especially in children)
  • Stress
  • Loud noises or lights
  • Sleeping in a new, unfamiliar environment
  • Sleep disorders that are associated with breathing (Sleep apnea and night terrors are often linked)
  • Migraines and headaches
  • Head injuries
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Certain medications

The more you know about night terrors, the better prepared you will be should you, your partner or your child show signs of experiencing the terrors. Night terrors tend to run in the family, so it is best to know how to identify night terrors and deal with them.

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