Night terrors, or sleep terrors, are a parasomnia that affect up to 40% of children, though they are less frequent the older we get.
Typically paired with sleepwalking, night terrors can have a few symptoms and causes. Parasomnia refers to any unwanted and abnormal events while someone is sleeping, like sleep paralysis or exploding head syndrome. Parasomnias can occur while someone is about to fall asleep or at any point in the sleep-wake cycle and usually make it difficult to get quality sleep or can even create anxiety that prevents sleep for people.
What are night terrors? Night terrors can be characterized by a few symptoms and often happen to children and younger adults. They aren’t the same as nightmares and usually last for a few minutes, though it varies for everyone. Most people outgrow night terrors by the time they are teenagers.
Sleep terrors can be alarming and confusing for both the sleeper and others in the house, as often people appear to be awake but are actually asleep. They may be walking around or mumbling in their sleep, and it can be scary if you aren’t sure what’s happening.
Symptoms of night terrors:
- Screaming or shouting in their sleep
- Sitting up in bed and appearing to be awake
- Racing heart beat, sweating, and rapid breathing
- Aggressive behavior toward anyone trying to wake them
- Difficult to console and confused upon waking
What causes night terrors? The exact cause of sleep terrors isn’t known, but generally night terrors are thought to occur during the deepest phase of non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM). Several things can contribute to the likelihood of experiencing a night terror including stress, sleep deprivation, and other sleep disruptions. High fevers are also reported to cause night terrors.
Inconsistent sleep-wake cycles, especially in children, can contribute to night terrors and episodes, so getting your child on a regular schedule can help lessen the number of sleep terrors. Adults are more prone to violent actions or injury during sleep terrors and it is hard to wake someone up while experiencing it.
Comedian Mike Birbiglia famously discusses his own experience with sleep walking and night terrors in one of his specials. During a particular episode he believed he was fighting off an enemy, when in real life he threw himself out of hotel window while on tour.
What stops night terrors? A lot of parents and partners of those affected by night terrors wonder how they can safely stop night terrors while they are happening. This can be a risky situation and should be handled carefully.
You should not physically attempt to restrain or wake someone while they are having a night terror. Because they likely cannot hear you, they may feel attacked and respond violently. It’s actually better to let them make it through the night terror, whether that be screaming it out or thrashing in bed, and only intervene if absolutely necessary. Speaking to them in a calming, soothing voice may also help bring them out of it, though they may not hear you at all.
Waking someone from a night terror can be a scary and disorienting experience for the sleeper, so trying to mitigate any danger while the episode lasts is probably the best option.
If you or someone you know is suffering from night terrors, it’s always best to ask your doctor or pediatrician for advice. While there isn’t a known cure, minimizing stress and sleep disruptions can help reduce episodes greatly.
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