What night terrors are (and aren’t), where they come from, and how to ease them

CONTENT WARNING: PTSD, GAD, nightmares, night terrors, mental health

Sleep is a crucial aspect of maintaining your physical and mental health, but what do you do when your own dreams turn against you? 

In honor of World Mental Health Day on October 10, a day to raise awareness and galvanize support for solutions that support mental health care, we’re talking about night terrors, specifically in adults.

It’s clear that sleep, both good and bad, has a very strong effect on our mental and physical health. But when a person can’t rely on sleep to be restful and rejuvenating, it starts a vicious cycle: sleep deprivation deepens physical and mental symptoms of illness. Those symptoms exhaust one’s body, further deepening the need for restful sleep that won’t come, and on and on. For those who suffer from night terrors, that’s exactly what happens. 

We’ll talk about what night terrors are, what can cause them, and how they can be eased.

What are night terrors? 

So, what are night terrors? Are they just nightmares? Heck no. 

Night terrors or sleep terrors, according to The Sleep Foundation, are an unusual sleep behavior that’s observed in the early stages of sleep. Someone experiencing a night terror will suddenly start showing signs of panic. Symptoms range from elevated heart rate, sweating, and muscle tensing to screaming, flailing, or sleepwalking. 

In addition to these potentially terrifying and disrupting symptoms, people suffering a night terror might not be reesponsive to another person’s attempts to wake them. In some cases, attempting to wake someone from a night terror can even cause the sleeper to thrash and struggle against the person to “escape” them. Upon coming out of the terror, the sleeper usually doesn’t remember their actions or many aspects of the dream.

So, what’s the difference between a night terror and a nightmare? Nightmares occur during the last stage of sleep, called rapid eye movement (REM) as opposed to night terrors (which occur during earlier stages of sleep). Because the dreamer is deeply asleep, they can often be roused from a nightmare, remember details of their nightmares, and do not react physically or vocally to their dream subject.

What causes night terrors?

It varies, especially as you get older. While night terrors are most common in children, with one study citing that almost half of children experience night terrors during early childhood, night terrors in adults are far less common. 

Night terrors can occur with other disorders, especially in people who used to experience frequent night terrors as a child. Their occurrence is frequently correlated with other psychiatric diagnoses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Night terrors also appear correlated with some other sleep-related disorders, such as sleep apnea, asthma, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). 

In addition to chronic disorders, night terrors can be brought on by some more mundane factors, such as a fever, sleep deprivation, a disrupted sleep schedule, migraines or head injuries, and alcohol use/abuse. 

How can they be treated? 

According to Mayo Clinic, if you’re an adult experiencing night terrors, you should see a doctor if your night terrors are new or worsening, frequent enough to affect your health and/or functioning, regularly disrupts your or your partner’s sleep, or if you potentially pose a danger to yourself or another person while in the throes of the terror. 

As for treatments, creating a calming and safe environment for the sleeper and practicing good sleep hygiene does a lot of good towards fending off night terrors before they happen. Sometimes, the safest environment isn’t always the bedroom – so try sleeping in another room that feels safer, or try doing something relaxing in another room, then going back to bed when sleepiness hits. 

In addition to these tips, it may be helpful to speak to a sleep specialist, enlist help from a sleep partner to record or describe your episodes, or seek out a sleep study to see if there are underlying disorders. Therapy can also help manage symptoms and, during the course of therapy, a therapist might recommend some antidepressants to ease symptoms.