How To Know If Your Nightmare Is Actually a Night Terror

MMaybe your teeth fell out, you were followed, or you found yourself naked in public. If you’ve woken up in a panic from one of these confusing yet terrifying scenarios – or something similar – you’ve been having a nightmare. “They usually have violent or anxious content that wakes you up,” explains Michael J. Breus, PhD, founder of The Sleep Doctor. While nightmares occur in the last third of a sleep cycle and are usually remembered the next day, a night terror (aka sleep terror) does not.

“Night terrors are more common in children, and they seem to wake up screaming and scaring their parents to death before peacefully falling asleep again,” says Dr. Breus. A person experiencing a night terror may also thrash about or even jump out of bed. “It usually happens in the first third of the night during deep sleep, and the next day they usually have almost no memory of the event,” he adds.

Because of their timing, night terrors are clinically referred to as non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep parasomnias (or NREM parasomnias). Night terrors are most common in children between the ages of 3 and 7 years. However, they can occur at any age and one to two percent of adults experience them.

What causes a night terror and who is more prone to it?

It’s still unknown why night terrors occurs, but researchers believe there’s a link between the transition from light to deep sleep. There are also strong links to genetics and other parasomnias like sleepwalking. In addition, the following conditions may increase your chances of experiencing night terrors:

  • sleep apnea
  • migraine
  • fever (especially in children)
  • Emphasize
  • sleep deprivation
  • A head injury
  • Restless Legs Syndrome
  • Too much caffeine
  • Certain medications.
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What to do when you or someone you know experiences night terrors

More sleep is the first step. “Night terrors are more common when you’re sleep deprived,” explains Dr. Breus and advises to “also avoid alcohol, caffeine and cannabis as they cause fragmented sleep, which can increase the likelihood of events.”

If it’s someone else experiencing night terrors, there are some other steps you can take to help them. First, the main rule, as with sleepwalkers, is not to wake them up. “You shouldn’t try to wake someone from a night terror, regardless of their age, as this can further upset them,” says Dr. Breus. “Rather, make sure their bedroom is safe and they can’t hurt themselves if they jump out of bed.”

While you shouldn’t wake her up during the act, waking her up beforehand can help avoid the fright altogether. “About 30 to 35 minutes after they go to sleep, go in and wake them up and ask them three questions that require an answer that isn’t yes or no.” For example, What is the day today? What did you have for dinner? What is your favorite book? “Let her go back to sleep afterwards,” says Dr. Breus. Alternatively, if you are able to pinpoint the exact time that the night terrors last, wake them up 30 to 35 minutes before that time and follow the same steps.

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