When Tired Turns to Terror: The 4 W’s of Sleep Terrors

You know the feeling. You sit straight up at night with an overwhelming sense of fear. You are drenched in sweat and feel disoriented. Unfortunately, for some this is not an occasional incident, but rather a chronic condition. Often referred to as night terrors, these episodes are most common among children but can also impact adults.

Little Girl Having Childhood Nightmares

Night terrors are also called Sleep Terrors, Sleep Terror Disorder and Pavor Nocturnus. The Mayo Clinic describes them as “episodes of screaming, intense fear and flailing while still asleep.” Typically, they occur during non-REM sleep and can be associated by sleepwalking. While they can be disturbing for parents to watch, there is usually little cause for concern. Children usually have little to no recollection of the incident and are most likely to outgrow them by adolescence.

With something so frightening, it is often helpful to have as much information as possible. Sometimes simply limiting the unknown can resolve a great deal of fear.


Who experiences night terrors?

One to six-percent of children experience actual night terrors, not to be confused with nightmares. Research suggests that both males and females are impacted equally, with no notable difference between races or socioeconomic status. Generally speaking, children ages 12 and under are affected by night terrors. However, adults can also experience them. Adult sufferers may have a history of anxiety or depression, although this is not a common factor. Night terrors in and of themselves are not a psychological disorder.


What should you expect during an episode?

Most night terror episodes last 1-2 minutes, but it can take much longer for the person to be able to relax and get back to restful sleep. During an episode, a person might scream, shout, kick, sweat, get out of bed, exhibit hostile behavior, be impossible to calm and even difficult to wake up. If awoken during an episode, a person is usually very confused and does not recall what happened.


Why do people have night terrors?

A lack of sleep and high stress levels can cause a person to have night terrors. In children, fevers are a common factor as is sleeping in an unfamiliar setting. More often than not, a number of things ultimately come together to cause or contribute to a night terror episode. Some chronic conditions like migraines and sleep-related disorders (e.g. sleep apnea) can also cause an incident. Episodes have also been linked to medications that affect the central nervous system.


When to seek a doctor’s help?

Night terrors can be well, terrifying for both the person having them and those who witness them. However, it is important to note that there is usually no reason for concern. Most children outgrow the sleep disturbance by age 12, the majority much younger than that. If you or someone you know is experiencing night terrors in adulthood, then a medical professional should be consulted.

It might also be time to consult a doctor if the terrors become more frequent or cause your child or family members to fear falling asleep. Excessive daytime drowsiness is a potential side effect and should also be monitored. If at anytime you feel that you or someone you know is a danger to themselves or others, then please seek medical attention immediately.

While sleep health professionals and the medical community as a whole recognize night terrors, there is still a lot of unknown in this area of sleep disorders. Researchers continue to study both pediatric and adult patients to determine if and how the episodes can be treated and or prevented. If you or your child is experiencing night terrors, it would not be unreasonable to request a sleep study and ask your primary care provider for options in addressing the issue.


If you have reoccurring night terrors, then we can help. Contact us to set up an appointment with one of our sleep doctors to find out what your options are.