Night terrors (also called sleep terrors) are frightening instances in which a person screams, cries, even jumps from bed, while still fully asleep. These episodes can be very unsettling to the bed partner or others in the living situation and may result in bodily harm to the sleeper or others. The person may not awaken until the episode is over and may remember nothing of the incident.
You may recall that in non-REM sleep, physical movement is not restricted as it is in REM sleep. Since both sleepwalking and night terrors occur during NREM sleep, the person can move about freely while still technically asleep. Night terrors are often confused with nightmares but are not the same (see sidebar below).
Approximately three percent of adults have night terrors, and 15 percent of children and adolescents experience them. Night terrors are believed to occur when there is a disruption in the nervous system, often triggered by stress, sleep deprivation, or sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings.
Some sleep experts believe that sleepwalking and night terrors are two manifestations of the same disorder, with sleepwalking being the mildest form and night terrors the most severe. In children, this disorder usually disappears as they mature. Treatment for adult night terrors may include much the same approaches that are used for adult sleepwalkers -- prescription medication, hypnotherapy, psychotherapy, and stress-management techniques.
While night terrors can disrupt sleep, some people have difficulty falling asleep at all. The next page will introduce you to the wide-ranging condition of insomnia.
So if you were having a nightmare, you wouldn't be able to grab that baseball bat stored in your bedroom closet to ward off your imagined attackers. The act of getting out of bed or verbally yelling or crying during sleep is more likely to be a night terror than a nightmare.
For more information on how to get a good night's sleep, see:
- How Sleep Works
- Causes of Insomnia
- How to Fall Asleep
- Sleep Medications
- Natural Sleep Aids
- How to Help A Child Who Is Having Trouble Falling Asleep
- Is Lack of Sleep Making Me Fat?
- Is Science Phasing Out Sleep?