What are night terrors, its causes, symptoms, and cure?

April 19, 2017 | By Abhishek | Filed in: Lucid Dreaming.

The phenomenon of night terror is really scary and can trouble you a lot. Therefore, if you want to know what night terrors actually are and what are its causes, symptoms and prevention techniques, then this article will cover all your queries regarding it.

What are night terrors?

Night terrors can be defined as the episodes of screaming, intense fear and swinging wildly during sleep. It is sometimes paired with sleepwalking and is also known as sleep terrors. Night terrors are a disturbing sleep disorder which are found most commonly in young but can also occur at times due to stress in adults which are referred as adult night terrors. The severity of night terrors can increase if it is characterized by waking up in the night or screaming in the night in terror while asleep or hallucinating of fearful images like a big bug or monster in the bed. Night terrors shares some similarities with Hallucinatory Sleep Disorder, still many people go undiagnosed because of their inability to understand what’s happening to them.

night terrors

Night terrors are a form of sleep disorder due to which a person partially awakens from sleep in a state of terror. While experiencing night terrors, a person can feel activation of his or her fight or flight system. Children may wake up and sit crying or screaming due to this. Night terrors should not be confused with nightmares. A nightmare can be described as a dream which occurs during rapid eye movement sleep and it results in feelings of strong terror, fear, distress, and extreme anxiety. Nightmares tends to occur in the later part of the night and often awakens the sleeper who is likely to recall the content of the dream. Thus, there is a slight but difference between nightmares and night terrors.

Night terrors are often confused with sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis can be described in the form of a phenomenon in which an individual, either during awakening or falling asleep experiences feelings such as an inability to move, or speak, or react. Sometimes, frightening hallucinations accompany it due to which the sufferer is unable to react and perceives physical experiences such as a strong current running through the upper body. Thus, there is significant difference between night terrors and sleep paralysis.

While experiencing night terrors, victims may jump out of bed due to extreme terror accompanied by temporary inability to regain full consciousness. Sometimes, it can be accompanied by fearful hallucinations which varies from person to person. This instigates the fight or flight response which is an evolutionary instinct helping us to flee from emergency situations with a rush of adrenaline. During this phenomenon, the fear experienced is intense and the sufferer often screams or shouts and gets in high urgency of getting out of the situation. In this state of half sleep, the sufferer will not be able to respond well to logical statements such as calm down or it’s just a dream and some people even have no memory of the attack.

Causes of night terrors

The cause of night terrors is not exactly known so far, but this stress phenomenon may result due to lack to lack of sleep or high levels of stress. Conflict and tension in the home can attributed as the examples of a stressor which may bring on night terrors in kids. Night terrors in children are the most common phenomenon and yet as an adult we are not completely immune to this condition. Following are some of the night terror causes as identified through research.

  •  Physical and/or emotional stress
  •  Fever
  •  Medications and stimulants
  •  Jet lag
  •  Head injuries
  •  Sleep deprivation
  •  Consumption of drugs
  •  Sleeping in a new place

According to the study by Night Terrors Research Center, the longer you are in non-rapid eye movement sleep before the terror strikes, the greater are the chances of feeling fear. In such cases, it becomes possible to provoke an episode of night terror with slight touch. In a recent study conducted by researchers it was found that in 81% of cases, the main reason for already predisposed sufferers to experience night terrors was physical contact and proximity of a sleeping partner or a pet.

Symptoms of night terror

During the episodes of night terror, if the person has been only partially awakened, then he or she may not be able to remember it the next morning and possibly may not be even aware of it. Adults have the tendency to remember their night terror more often than children. Following is the list of some of the symptoms of night terror.
• Complete or partial awakening from the sleep, suddenly after the phenomenon
• Screaming or shouting

night terrors in children

• Wide eyes having dilated pupils
• Feeling intense fear or terror
• Rapid and uncontrolled breathing
• Increased blood pressure
• Profuse sweating

Tests for night terrors

Usually, for the determination of night terror, a complete history about it and physical examinations are sufficient to diagnose it. Following are some of the tests which are used for diagnosing night terrors.
• Electroencephalogram, which is used to measure brain activities can be performed to detect the suspected seizure disorder.

night terrors prevention

• Polysomnography, which is also called as sleep study, records brain waves, oxygen level in blood, heart rate, breathing and eye-leg movement during the study. For diagnosing night terrors, it can be used to detect the suspected breathing disorder.
• CT scans and MRIs are performed in less number of cases.

Night terrors prevention

You can try to prevent your child’s night terrors by interrupting his or her sleep. Following are some steps which you can follow.

  •  Note the duration, i.e., for how many minutes the phenomenon of night terror occurs from your child’s bedtime
  •  After tracking the time, awake your child 15 minutes prior to the expected time of night terror and keep them awake and out of bed for 5 minutes.
  •  You may take your child to the bathroom and check whether they urinate or not.
  •  Continue following this routine for at least a week.

Night terrors treatment

There are various thoughts on the best way to stop night terrors in kids and adults. Some people believe that you need to hold sufferer and reassure them from jumping and shouting. In this way, you will be able to prevent them from hurting themselves. But, sometimes they may feel extremely paranoid and think that you are trying to harm them, if this is their reaction then let them to move freely. In situations like this, it is important from your side to stay calm. At any point, don’t yell at them because this will make them more confused and anxious. It is important for you to understand that the sufferer will already be in an extremely confused state due to the sudden adrenaline rush and possibly be in a half-asleep state, so be patient and try to bring them back to reality with reassuring words.

Children experiencing night terror usually require only comfort to calm down them and in most of the cases the child will ease back to sleep after the episode of night terror. It is important to note for the parents that, if the night terrors to their children are caused due to an underlying condition or because of a head injury, then they should immediately seek medical attention for their kids. In several cases, doctors prescribe anti-depressant drugs as a cure for night terrors.

You can try the following relaxation methods to prevent yourself or your child from the buildup of anxiety which can often result in attack, as these methods serve as a way of treatment for night terrors.

  • Give your child some time to unwind memories at the end of a busy day before sending them to bed. For this you can try to run them through a warm bath, play peaceful music or snuggle up them with a book before bed.

treatment for night terrors

  • Ensure that the bedroom is not overly hot in the summer, as this can exacerbate the episode of night terrors. Leave the window open a bit and give your kids some lightweight pajamas.
  • It is observed that music helps in falling asleep to the soothing sound of it which aids the transition between each phase of sleep when the insomnia occurs. It can also prove beneficial in creating a good mental imagery to relax your mind when you are about to fall asleep.
  • As far as herbal remedies are concerned you can consider taking them before an hour or so before bed as per doctor’s prescription. In case of chronic sufferers, it may take a week to see a reduction in night terrors. But herbal remedy is a reliable method which is less habit forming than the prescription drugs.
  • Avoid scents during episodes of night terrors because these are highly evocative. Try a relaxing oil like lavender to calm yourself and ensure the aroma sticks like incense stick until morning.

Apart from the above relaxation methods, there are few lifestyle changes which you can try for reducing the occurrences of night terrors. Firstly, you can create a safe and calm environment in your bedroom and then incorporate your relaxation routine daily at night. Sleeping for longer duration may also help in overcoming this stress phenomenon, since lack of sleep is a major contributor to it. You can try to identify the stress causing factors in your life and then look at the ways to handle these factors more effectively and if possible try to eliminate those.

You can also try to recognize a pattern in your night terrors by observing the activities and actions which seem to happen prior to the episode of night terror. After identifying some of these, you can either shift these activities to an earlier part of the day or eliminate them. Seeking out for counseling to release the negative anxieties which causes night terrors is a way to reduce the stress that causes it.

Night terrors may also be linked to phobias or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which is a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress which occurs as a result severe psychological shock or injury and involves disturbances in sleep and constant vivid recall of the experience with dulled response to others as well as to those in the outside world. Therefore, it becomes important to deal with the root cause of the anxiety and treat this condition which troubles a lot in the night.

how to deal with night terrors


What happens during a night terror?

Sometimes night terror can occur nightly or even twice nightly whereas in some cases they didn’t happen for months. This is a perfect destroyer of a peaceful night’s sleep. The feeling of night terror is difficult to explain in words, but to give you a feel of it, you can imagine yourself drifting off to a land of dreams letting your guard down and then suddenly after 45 – 60 minutes which is the regular timeframe of the transition from one phase of deep sleep to the next, you awake into a terrifying threat in your safest place i.e., bedroom. This fright factor is compounded on the basis of inability to escape from the situation.

During the night terror, you may feel frequent activities like jumping, stumbling, felling out of bed, narrowly avoiding slamming into furniture and walls, etc. Also, during this phenomenon it is impossible to think logically and you might be driven by fight or flight mode guided by a primitive lizard brain. Night terrors are more prevalent in children and the most common hallucinations are centered around insects in the bed. As an example, for few kids it might be a typical spider crawling on the bedsheet or dangling in the mid-air right about their face. The good news in this case is, it is unusual for most of the children to remember the night terrors the next morning and unfortunately for adults this is not the case.

The major contributing factor for night terror is that of being anxious. If a person is worried about his or her life then he or she would particularly feel vulnerable and will think as if the things were out of control and this will lead night terrors to happen more frequently. An important point to note is that, night terrors can be easily set off by simply being touched during the critical deep sleep transition phase in the night. In the recent study conducted by the researchers, it was found that out of night terrors are triggered due to physical contact and proximity of a sleeping partner or a pet on the bed.

phenomenon of night terrors

Overview of night terrors

A night terror can be looked as a sleep disruptor which appears like a bad dream however has a much more dramatic presentation. These are disturbing for the guardians who witness them, yet they are not the typical reason for concern or an indication of a more profound medicinal issue. Sleep occurs in several stages and each stage is associated with a brain activity. Most of the dreams occur during the Rapid Eye Movement stage whereas night terrors happen during deep non-Real Eye Movement sleep. Unlike nightmares which occur during REM sleep, a night terror should not be technically considered as a dream. It is a sudden reaction of fear which is expelled during the transition from one sleep phase to another phase.

Usually, it is observed that night terrors occur about 2 – 3 hours after a child falls asleep. While experiencing the phenomenon of night terror, it is possible that your child might suddenly sit upright in bed and start screaming in sleep or shouting out in distress. Your child’s heartbeat and breathing may increase and he or she might sweat, thrash around, and act scared and upset. But, normally after few minutes your child will simply calm down and return to sleep without your assistance. It is important to note that, unlike nightmares in which kids often remember them, in case of night terrors, kids won’t have any memory what happened with them while they were in deep sleep because during this phenomenon there are no mental images to recall them.

Night terrors are caused due to the over arousal of the Central Nervous System, which regulates sleep and waking brain activity, during the sleep. This stressful phenomenon may happen regularly, since the Central Nervous System is still in maturing stage. In a study, it was found that about 80% kids who have night terrors have a family member who has experienced them or had a similar type of sleep disturbance like sleepwalking. Thus, it shows that some kids have a tendency of inheriting the over arousal of Central Nervous System.

Night terrors are relatively rare and they happen in 3 – 6% of kids, whereas almost every child experiences nightmare occasionally. Night terrors normally happen between the age gathering of 4 to 12, however these have been accounted for in children as youthful as year and a half and are more typical among boys. During the life, a child may have a solitary night terror or several before they end altogether and most of the time, they simply vanish on their own as the nervous system matures with time.

night terrors in kids

Night terrors prove out to be very upsetting for parents, as they feel helpless for not being able to comfort or alleviate the problem of their child. But, it is important to note that the best way to handle a night terror is to wait patiently and make sure that the child doesn’t get hurt during the episodes of night terrors. After this phenomenon ends, kids will usually settle down and return to sleep on their own within few minutes. Waking up your kids during a night terror is not a best practice because usually these attempts don’t work and if kids do wake then they are likely to be disoriented and confused, may take lot of time to settle down and go back to sleep back.

You can try to prevent night terrors in your kids by reducing their stress level and ensuring that your child gets enough rest by establishing a bedtime routine which is simple and relaxing and stick to it. Thus, understanding night terror can reduce your worry about it and will help you get a good night’s sleep. But, if the night terrors happen regularly, then you should not wait any further and talk to a doctor about it and see in case you need a referral to sleep specialist.

How to deal with night terrors?

Night terrors are considered as a preferred way for expressing certain fears and anxieties through an unconscious mind. Therefore, it becomes critical to know how should one react while experiencing this phenomenon of unconscious stress. Either you can decide to view night terrors as a disorder to be endured or you can choose to view it as a red flag from your unconscious mind like a plea for help and then address the underlying concern. Thus, you need to be prepared for this analogy to alleviate the effect of night terrors.

As an example, imagine that you are running a website and due to some unexpected reason your website keeps throwing up a bug in the display. As far as your website looks screwy and you have realized that it will never fix by itself, then you can think of ignoring the bug, but what if it is impacting your entire website experience? Then you can’t ignore it further and you need to look at the source code and re-write it after finding the exact problem. While performing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, you can edit some part of your original source code.

Adults experiencing episodes of night terrors should seek medical help to determine its cause, which is the primary step to tackle it and then your doctor will look for a pattern in your night terrors. After this, ensure that you follow the doctor’s prescription. During the days of phenomenon of night terror, you should avoid keeping anything which can cause you physical harm and ensure that you keep your sleeping area free from sharp objects. Also, try to create some sort of barrier which will keep you away from wandering into danger such as a balcony or a flight of stairs.

Hope, that you are now aware about the phenomenon of night terrors. You can comment on this article and raise queries in the comment section below.

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