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Night Terrors


*Nothing in this article constitutes medical advice. Seek the guidance of a physician if you have any questions.*

Have you ever seen a movie with a scene where the person is sleeping but suddenly sits straight up in bed screaming, sweating, and flailing their arms?  Most folks automatically assume that those scenes portray a person having a nightmare. However, they may depict a person having a night terror, also known as sleep terrors. According to the American Sleep Association, night terrors are a parasomnia condition in which a person reacts to a sense of fear or terror by screaming, thrashing around, or crying. Parasomnias are undesirable physical or verbal behaviors, such as walking or talking during sleep, association with sleep, specific stages of sleep, or sleep-wake transition. Most literature only talks about children and night terrors because 1 and 6 in 100 children experience sleep terrors. The literature will lead one to believe those night terrors do not affect many adults. Still, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine finds that night terrors plague approximately 2.2 percent of the adult population. Some experts believe that the number of adults that suffer from night terrors would be higher, but adults sleeping alone will not remember a night terror. Night terrors are categorized as a non-rapid eye movement of sleep (NREM), which means the person that has the night terror will not remember it.

The Difference Between a Nightmare or a Night terror?

Night terrors can sometimes be misdiagnosed as nightmares, although they are opposite of each other. For example, night terrors happened during NREM, but nightmares occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. A child having a night terror may suddenly bolt upright in the bed, scream, mumble, moan, cry, and thrash around with their eyes wide open, but they are not awake. Therefore, a child won't remember a night terror episode because they are stuck between a sleep phase. A child having a nightmare is fully awake afterward and can not only remember the dream but seek comfort from a parent. People having an episode of sleep terrors do not typically respond to voices, and it can be tough to wake them up. Once they wake up, they will be confused, and some may forget where they are at the moment. Adults are more likely to recall brief bits of a dream, but not children. The adults who remember dreams usually talk about dreams involving great danger or fright. It can take a long time for a parent to comfort a child once a night terror episode is over.

Because night terrors happen during NREM, they often occur during the first third of the time they are asleep in children. Episodes in adults can occur at any time in the sleep cycle. Serious and even deadly injury can happen when a person has night terror episodes and tries to escape from bed or fight the person trying to comfort them. Night terrors can wreak havoc on relationships, and some adults feel embarrassed by the episodes.

Night Terror Signs and Symptoms

  • Fast heart rate
  • Fast breathing
  • Sweating
  • Dilated pupils

How to Treat Night Terrors?

No treatment will cure night terrors, and most children tend to grow out of them. Experts recommend that parents not try to wake their children when they go through a sleep terror episode. A parent trying to wake a child will only further confuse a child experiencing a night terror, and efforts to comfort the child will make things worse. According to Baby Center, "a child having a night terror really can't be calmed down, and if you try to hold him, it may make [them] wilder."

Natural Home Remedies for Night Terrors

  • Make the bedroom safe so that a person does not hurt themselves during an episode.
  • Get rid of anything that might disturb their sleeping patterns like electronic screens or noises.
  • Reduce stress levels.
  • Get adequate amounts of quality sleep.
  • Create a relaxing bedtime routine and stick to it.
  • Keep the same wake-up time every day.

Another useful technique is a "scheduled awakening. It is for people who notice that their child has a sleep terror around the same time every night. This technique involves a parent gently and briefly waking up the child for about 15 or 20 minutes, right before they have an episode. Some experts believe this technique alters a  child's sleep state enough to prevent a night terror. If a parent does a schedule awakening repeatedly, the child may learn to wake up automatically to avoid the night terror.

Statistics involving Sleep Terror Disorders

  • 1% - 6% of children in the United States will experience night terrors at some point in their childhood.
  • Less than 2% of adults have sleep terror disorder.
  • Individuals with a family history of sleep terror or sleepwalking disorder are ten times more likely to develop the same condition.
  • Sleep terror disorder usually begins in the '20s or '30s in adults.
  • Sleep terror disorder is most common in children between 3 and 12 years old.
  • The median age of onset of sleep terror disorder is 3 ½ years old.
  • The peak frequency of night terrors in children younger than 3.5 years old is at least one episode a week. In older children, it occurs with one to two episodes a month.

Most suffering from night terrors do not require any treatment or tests, and in most children, the terrors pass before their teen years. In the case of adults, it may help to speak with a doctor or consult a sleep specialist. Night terrors can lead to other sleep disorders like insomnia. A polysomnogram, an overnight sleep study, may be advised, which will help determine any other sleep related factors that may contribute to sleep terrors. Once a person knows what contributes to the sleep terror episodes, they can limit those contributing factors.  Most of the time, the person witnessing the sleep terror is more frightened than the person experiencing the episode once the person fully wakes up.




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