Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, sleep terror disorder, pavor nocturnus and DSM-IV AXIS I: 307.46 are a sleep disorder. Another sleep disorder known as Hallucinatory sleep paralysis (HSP) is often mistaken for night terrors because it has some similarities to night terrors.
Night terrors can run in families. They are not dangerous but what you do during the night terrors can be dangerous such as walking into objects or using kitchen appliances while not alert enough to do so safely. People have even been known to jump out of windows during their sleep.
Night terrors can last anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. They can happen at any age from babies to the elderly.
Sleep labs have discovered that night terrors occur due to increased brain activity. A brain misfire can contribute to the occurrence of night terrors.
The symptoms of night terrors include being suddenly awakened from sleep, being persistently afraid or experiencing terror at night including screaming, sweating, confusion, having a rapid heart rate, or an inability to explain what happened or may have a vague recollection of a frightening image. Those with night terrors are difficult to comfort, and have no memory of waking at all during the night upon waking the next morning.
Night Terrors are a non-REM sleep disorder. In other words they occur in deep sleep, not REM sleep.
Those with night terrors will usually have no recollection of what had terrified them while those who have nightmares can usually recall the nightmare vividly as soon as they wake and then the memory of the nightmare fades over time. Although some people with night terrors say that they can remember part of what the night terror was about.
Occasionally someone will remember the entire night terror. The most unlucky of all are those who are Lucid Dreamers, who fully experience the Night Terror and are conscious throughout.
Adult Night Terror
More common in children, night terror in adults has similar symptoms, but different causes and treatment. Instead of being genetic based, these night terrors are many times based on past traumatic experiences. There is some evidence of a link between adult night terrors and hypoglycemia.
Some who have adult night terror show many of the characteristics of abused and depressed individuals including inhibition of aggression, self-directed anger, passivity, and anxiety.
Treatment can include hypnotherapy, psychotherapy, medication, and finding the specific trigger for an individuals NT episodes.
Some common triggers reported are stress and anxiety, hot temperatures, sleep deprivation or interrupted sleep schedule, sudden noises at night, hormonal changes, intestinal problems and medications, drugs or alcohol.
Common in Children
Night terrors are common sleep disorders in children. As many as 15% of younger kids have occasional night terrors. They are more prevalent in kids between the ages of 2 and 6.
Night terrors are very distressing, can cause children to be afraid to go to sleep, and can be distressing to parents. Parents often overreact when a child has a night terror, especially if it is the first one.
Kids who have night terrors usually wake with blood-curdling screams and have a look of fear and panic in their eyes. They sometimes wake up sweaty, breathing fast and will have a rapid heart rate. Children who first wake from a night terror will appear to be confused, inconsolable and may not even recognize their parents.
Do Not Disturb
Children will usually fall back to sleep when the terror is over. Parents should not try to wake up a child having a terror. Parents should instead try to keep their child safe such as watching so they don’t fall out of bed.
Children who are overtired are prone to NTs. You may be able to avoid night terrors by teaching children to stick to a regular bedtime routine and making sure your child gets enough rest.
If your child has regular night terrors it may help to wake them BEFORE the time they normally have the terrors as this may interrupt the sleep cycle and prevent the night terrors.
There are a few chapters in Oliver Sacks book Hallucinationsabout night terrors that anyone interested in the subject would find fascinating. I recommend this book to anyone suffering from this condition. The most complete book on the subject for the layman is probably Shelley R. Adler’s Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection.