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Night Terrors Explained: How to Help Someone With Night Terrors

by BetterSleep
Sep 10 • 10 min read
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Night terrors are a phenomenon that can be very frightening for both the person experiencing them and their loved ones.

However, many people don’t know what night terrors are and how to address them when they occur.

This article provides information about night terrors so that people will better understand what they are, why they happen, and how to best address them.

What are Night Terrors?

Sleep terrors, one of the common disruptive-sleep-related disorders, are undesirable behavior. This sleep disorder typically happens during the deepest non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep stage, characterized by slow brain waves and a lack of muscle activity.

During a night terror, the subject reacts to an extreme sense of fear, screaming, thrashing around, or crying while they are asleep. They may also get out of bed and walk around, resulting in some sleepers getting into accidents or causing violent acts.

This sleep phenomenon usually lasts for a few seconds up to around 20 minutes and can be very distressing for the person experiencing them and their loved ones.

Moreover, while most people will return to REM or deep sleep after a night terror episode, there are times when a sleeper may experience extreme confusion and amnesia upon waking up.

Night terror in Children vs. Adults

Night terrors are a type of sleep disorder that affects people of all ages. However, this sleep disorder is more common in children, and the experience is also slightly different between children and adults.

Incidence of Night Terror in Children

Sleep terrors occur in children about 1% to 7% of the time and are most common among younger children between 36 months and five years old, although the event still happens at age 13. Interestingly, most children do not remember anything about their dream.

Studies reveal that children who experienced night terrors became sleepwalkers later in childhood. Research conducted with the participation of 2000 children in Quebec showed that as many as 30% of them who experienced night terrors became sleepwalkers later.

Children who experience night terrors may talk in their sleep and even sleepwalk. They are also likely to develop other forms of parasomnias later after they stop experiencing night terrors. Some factors that trigger sleep terror in children include insufficient sleep, fever, stress, and medications.

Night Terror in Adults

Night terrors in adults affect only about 2% of the population. An adult may experience sleep terror at any stage of the sleep cycle and are more likely to recall elements of their dream.

Studies show that adults with bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety are more likely to experience. History of experiencing traumatic events may also contribute to the incidence of night terror in adults.

Causes of Sleep Terrors in Adults?

Some potential causes of night terrors are associated with underlying mental health conditions. Researchers believed these factors are triggers of night terror episodes in adults:

Mental Health Condition

While the causes of night terrors are not fully understood, experts believe some of these occurrences are linked to adult mental health issues, such as:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • bipolar disorder

In addition, researchers theorized that night terror occurs as a consequence of trauma and chronic stress. Nonetheless, there is limited study on the link between this type of parasomnia and mental disorders.

Breathing Problems

Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that increases the risk of experiencing parasomnias. The breathing pauses that last for a few seconds to minutes during sleep may trigger sleep terror.

Sleep apnea interrupts the sleep cycle when the body experiences stress due to oxygen deprivation. The lack of oxygen supply in the body causes fragmented sleep, triggering night terrors.

Treating this breathing disorder during sleep may help reduce instances of night terrors. Some common sleep apnea treatments include wearing a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device during sleep, proper sleep positioning, and surgery to remove tissue blocking the airway.

Emotional Tension

Researchers also believed those night terrors occur as a consequence of emotional tension. Emotional tension may manifest as:

  • stress
  • grief
  • fear

Anger can also lead to sleep disorders, including sleep terrors. A study found that people with intermittent explosive disorder (IED), a condition characterized by episodes of impulsive aggression, are more likely to experience sleep terror.

In the study, researchers used data from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions to examine the relationship between sleep terror and IEDs. They found that individuals with IEDs were five times more likely to experience sleep terror than those without the condition.

The researchers believe that sleep terror may be a symptom of impulsivity and anger issues. Treatment for sleep terror often includes therapy to help manage underlying mental health conditions.

Genetic Factors

In a small study in 1980, researchers found that 80% of sleepwalkers and 96% of people who experienced night terrors have at least one family member who suffered from either of these sleep conditions.

Another investigation of 390 sets of twins showed that identical twins were more likely to experience night terrors than fraternal twins. This finding led the researchers to theorize that genetic factors also contribute to the tendency of an individual to experience night terrors.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Night Terrors

People with post-traumatic stress disorder often experience sleep disturbances, including night terrors.

Several possible explanations exist for why night terrors happen in people with PTSD. One theory is that intrusive memories cause significant distress, as the traumatic memories intrude into their consciousness during sleep, causing considerable distress.

Other Factors that May Affect the Quality of Sleep

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a sleep disorder that causes an irresistible urge to move the legs. The condition may also increase the risk of sleep terrors, as it typically disrupts the normal sleep cycle, leading to night terrors.

The immediate treatment for restless leg syndrome may help reduce night terrors risk. Treatment options include lifestyle changes, such as exercise, stress reduction, and medications. Some medications used to treat restless leg syndrome include dopaminergic drugs, anticonvulsants, and opioids.

Waking Up From a Night Terror

It is essential to stay calm if your loved one is experiencing a night of terror. Try to wake the person up slowly and calmly. Do not try to force them to wake up, as this may increase their distress. Night terrors can be distressing, so once the person is awake, be there to provide reassurance and support.

If you or a loved one is having night terrors regularly, you must see a doctor. Night terrors can be a symptom of an underlying mental health condition. Night terrors often include therapy to help manage underlying mental health conditions.

Night Terror Symptoms

Most night terrors occur during the first part of the night and typically coincide with deep, non-REM sleep. Most night terrors last for a few minutes, although some last for up to 20 minutes.

Symptoms of night terrors may include :

  • Sudden awakening from sleep with a scream or cry
  • Terror and fear
  • Hyperventilation
  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Pupils are dilated
  • The body may be stiff or thrashing
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation

Treatment Options for Night Terrors

Various treatment options are available for this type of parasomnia, depending on the severity and frequency of the episodes. Some people may only require reassurance and support from family and friends, while others may need medication or therapy to help manage the condition.

Sleep Medications

Sleep medicine is typically only recommended for people who experience frequent or severe night terrors, as it can have potential side effects. The most common type of medication used to treat night terrors is sedatives, which can help to reduce the frequency and intensity of episodes. Other types of medicine, such as antipsychotics or antidepressants, may be prescribed if sedatives are ineffective.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is another treatment option that can effectively manage night terrors. CBT can help identify and change any thoughts or behaviors contributing to the condition.

Healthy Sleep Routine

Following a healthy sleep routine means getting enough sleep each night and avoiding activities or substances that may disrupt your sleep, such as caffeine or alcohol. Creating a relaxing bedtime routine can also help promote better sleep.

Meditation for Sleep

Meditation is an effective treatment for reducing sleep terror. Meditation works by relaxing the mind and body, which can help to reduce stress and anxiety levels. In addition, meditation helps a person experience quality sleep, which is essential to relax the body and mind. In one study, people who practiced meditation for eight weeks reported a significant reduction in their sleep terror symptoms.

Family Support

Support from family and friends is also essential for people with night terrors. It can be helpful to have someone stay with you during an episode, as this can provide reassurance and minimize any potential injury. Night terrors can be frightening experiences, but with proper treatment, anyone can manage them effectively.

How to Stop Night Terrors

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating night terrors. However, there are some things you can do to reduce the likelihood of night terrors happening.

For example, you can:

Practice good sleep habits by going to bed at the same time each night and getting enough sleep

Reduce stress by doing relaxation exercises such as yoga or meditation

Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bedtime

Create a calm sleep environment by making sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool

If you have night terrors, talk to your doctor about treatment options. Some people may need medication to help reduce the frequency of night terrors.

How can a Sleep Specialist Help Reduce Night Terror?

The sleep specialist reviews the patient’s medical history and symptoms. The evaluation may include:

  • Physical exam. Your specialist may perform a physical exam to identify health conditions triggering sleep terrors.
  • Discuss your symptoms. In most cases, the specialist diagnosed the sleep terrors based on the patient’s description of the events. The patient may need to provide information such as sleep behaviors and family history of sleep problems.
  • A nocturnal sleep study. The specialist may also recommend performing analysis in a sleep lab. In a sleep study, the practitioners place sensors on the body to record and monitor brain activities, eye movements, the oxygen level in the body, heart rate, and breathing.

A sleep study can help identify underlying sleep disorders that may cause night terrors. It can also help determine if other factors, such as sleep deprivation, may trigger them.

If a sleep disorder causes night terrors, seek treatment to address the underlying condition immediately. In some cases, medical practitioners prescribe medications to help manage night terrors. If medical professionals find that sleep deprivation is one of the triggering factors, they may recommend getting restful sleep each night to prevent the re-occurrence of night terrors.

Night Terror FAQs

Are night terrors the same as nightmares?

No, nightmares are different from night terrors. Nightmares usually occur during the last few hours of sleep and are more vivid and story-like. They often occur as a consequence of may be caused by stress or anxiety and can often be resolved with dream analysis.

On the other hand, night terrors happen during the first few hours of sleep and are more like a panicked state. The individual experiencing night terrors may scream or thrash about, but they will not be able to remember the event later. Sleep studies show that partial arousal from deep sleep cause night terror.

What are some home remedies for sleep terror in children?

The most important thing you can do is stay calm. It’s also essential to:

  • make sure the child is safe
  • reassure the child that you are there
  • gently guide them back to sleep if possible
  • get rid of anything that may disrupt their sleep

If your child experiences sleep terror, talk to their doctor. There may be an underlying cause that needs to be addressed.

What are parasomnias?

The International Classification of Sleep Disorders defined parasomnias as a diverse group of disorders that comprise “abnormal events occurring in association with sleep.”

The International Classification of Diseases classified parasomnias as primary and secondary. The primary parasomnias refer to undesirable verbal or motor phenomena during sleep. Typically, these unwanted behaviors result in abnormal arousal that may occur at any stage of the sleep cycle.

Secondary parasomnia refers to sleep issues resulting from disorders happening in the body.

Night terrors are classified as an intrinsic type 1 parasomnia, which occurs during deep non-REM sleep. Other sleep disorders of type 1 parasomnias are sleepwalking and confusional arousal.

How do you help someone with night terror?

There are many ways to help people who experience night terrors. The first step is to make sure that the person gets enough sleep. A sleep specialist may recommend a sleep study and other diagnostic measures to rule out underlying conditions.

For instance, the doctor may recommend sleep apnea treatment if the person suffers from a sleep disorder. It is also critical to inform the physician of relevant factors, such as if the person is taking medication that could cause night terrors.

The person should also avoid alcohol and drugs. In most cases, practitioners recommend counseling if the person has a history of trauma or stress.

Another way to help is to create a safe and calming environment before bedtime. This pre-bedtime strategy may include dimming the lights, playing soothing music, or reading a relaxation script.

It is also important to avoid caffeine and alcohol before bedtime as these substances can trigger night terrors. If night terrors persist, a doctor may prescribe a medication to help reduce their frequency and severity

How do you stop a child from having a night of terror?

You can stop a child from having night terrors by creating a safe and calming environment for your child. A calm environment can help reduce stress and anxiety, promote restful sleep, and relax the mind.

Here are some of the things you can do to create a safe and calming space for your child:

First, consider the layout of the room. The bed should be in a central location away from windows or doors. If possible, create a barrier between the mattress and any potential hazards, such as electrical outlets or sharp corners. Soft lighting can also help create a soothing atmosphere.

Next, think about the color of the walls and bedding. Cool colors such as blue or green can promote relaxation, while warmer tones like yellow or orange can be stimulating. Choose bedding and decorations that reflect your child’s personality and interests to help them feel comfortable and relaxed in their space.

Finally, create a bedtime routine that is calming and relaxing. This may include reading a story together, taking a warm bath, or listening to soothing music. Establishing a regular bedtime routine will help your child wind down before sleep and feel more rested when they wake up.

Creating a safe and calming environment for your child to sleep in is essential to promoting their overall health and well-being. These simple tips can help your child get restful sleep and reduce the likelihood of experiencing night terrors.

How long can night terrors last?

Night terrors can last for a few seconds to a few minutes. In some cases, they may stay for more extended periods. Night terrors typically occur during the first few hours of sleep.

Should you wake up someone from a night terror?

It is generally not recommended to wake someone up from a night terror as this can cause them to become agitated and confused. However, if the person is in danger of harming themselves or others, it may be necessary to wake them up. If you need to wake someone up from a night terror, it is crucial to do so calmly and gently.

Wrap Up

Do you or someone you know suffer from sleep terrors?

Sleep terrors are a type of parasomnia, which is a disorder that causes abnormal behavior during sleep. Parasomnias can be very disruptive and often cause people to feel embarrassed or ashamed. But there is help available.

The good news is that treatment is available for sleep terrors. Guided meditation can help you relax your body and mind, making it easier to quiet the distracting thoughts that keep your mind buzzing. And when you’re better rested, you’ll feel more alert and focused during the day.

With our guided meditation for better sleep quality, you can enjoy all the benefits of a good night’s sleep - without any hassles. We’ll provide you with everything you need to get started, including a relaxation guide, bedtime stories, and more. So why wait? Get started today!

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