Night Terrors – What are They?

Night terrors, also called sleep terrors, are a parasomnia.  Parasomnia is a sleep problem whereby you have unwanted events happening while you sleep.

What happens during a night terror?

People who experience night terrors will often sit upright in bed and let out a blood curdling scream or shout a lot.  They may also kick, punch and thrash about. The heart will be racing, they’ll be sweaty and breathing heavily.  But they’re asleep.

  • The eyes will be wide open and, to their bed partner or roommate, they will appear very frightened.
  • Some people get out of bed and try to escape the dream and can injure themselves or others in the process.
  • When someone tries to wake them (which can be quite hard to do), they will feel confused and not know what’s been going on, or have much memory of what the dream was.
  • It can take some time for the person to calm down and feel reassured enough to go back to sleep.

These bulleted points above are what separate a night terror from REM Sleep Behaviour Disorder.

Who has night terrors?

Many children have sleep terrors but they’re less common in adults – about 2% of adults compared to over 6% of children.  It can cause a lot of embarrassment for adults and affect relationships.

If someone in your family has night terrors then you may have inherited the tendency to have them too.

People with mental health problems of bipolar disorder, depressive or anxiety disorders are at more risk of sleep terrors.  In children there is no connection between mental health problems and sleep terrors.

Some other health problems can also make night terrors more likely.  Conditions such as:

  • Sleep deprivation (from insomnia)
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Migraine
  • Stroke or other brain/head injury
  • Physical or emotional stress
  • Some medications
  • Alcohol
  • Sleep apnea
  • Fever in children

What is the treatment for night terrors?

If you recognise the descriptions above then talk to your family doctor. She should be able to refer you to a sleep specialist.

The sleep specialist will probably do an overnight sleep study which will give lots of readings about your brain wave activity, blood pressure, heart and breathing rates, etc while you sleep.  It also it will video your activity during sleep.  Any other sleep disorders that you weren’t aware of can be identified as they may be making your night terrors worse.

  • You can also keep a sleep diary, with the help of your roommate or bed partner.  This may help in finding what triggers your sleep terrors.  Record things like your stress levels, meds, sleepiness, alcohol use etc, as well as what happens if you have a sleep terror.
  • Treatment for night terrors usually involves correcting other sleep problems and also making sure you’re not taking any meds or drugs that might provoke them.

In children the disorder tends to go away as they get older and into their teens.  There’s more about children’s night terrors here.

Elspeth Raisbeck

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