Night terrors, or sleep terrors, are a condition in which a person becomes frightened during their sleep and screams, kicks, or thrashes about. People may also cry when experiencing night terrors. Night terrors are much more common in young children then in older children and adults, but can occur at any age.
Night terrors are different than nightmares. Nightmares are dreams, and they occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Night terrors, on the other hand, occur during non-REM sleep. They usually occur anywhere from 15 minutes to one hour after falling asleep, although they can occur later in the night.
No one knows for sure what causes night terrors. Many people with night terrors have other parasomnias (abnormal behaviors during sleep) such as sleep walking or sleep talking. Parasomnias often seem to run in families. Night terrors may be affected by emotional stress, being overtired, use of alcohol or drugs, and certain prescription medications. For instance, I was once given a prescription for Ellavil for migraines, and it causes horrible night terrors. People with certain psychological disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder are also prone to night terrors.
During a night terror, a person is not aware of what they are doing. Unless they wake up during the night terror, or are awakened, they will probably not remember it in the morning. Sometimes people will wake themselves up shouting during a night terror.
If you are with someone having a night terror, it is OK to wake them up. Try to wake them gently. Reassure the person that they are OK. Speak softly and soothingly. Physical contact may help, or it may cause the person to react violently. The only way to know is to try it and see. If it seems to make the situation worse, stop.
Prevent the person from hurting himself or herself by moving any hard or sharp objects out of the way. If the person is hitting or kicking the wall, you can place a blanket or pillow between them and the wall. Also prevent the person from hurting anyone else. A person having a night terror will often strike out or kick another person in the bed, so you may need to move out of the way to avoid being hurt. Remember that the person having the night terror does not know what they are doing and does not have control over their behavior.
Upon waking from a night terror, a person will generally be fearful for a short period of time. This usually lasts anywhere from five to 20 minutes. Their heart rate will usually be very rapid, as fast as 160 beats per minute. Their breathing may be very rapid, as well. After a little time, however, they will usually be able to go back to sleep.
If you have night terrors, you may be able to prevent them from occurring by limiting your intake of caffeine and alcohol, getting enough rest, and managing stress. If you have night terrors, you may want to make an appointment with a psychologist or other mental health professional to help you deal with stress and to evaluate you for any psychological disorders that may require treatment. Some people with night terrors report that sleeping with an eye mask on helps prevent night terrors, though it is not quite certain why that is.
There are also some medications that can be used to treat night terrors. These are primarily antidepressants. It may take a few weeks before they start to work. Talk to your doctor if you are interested in trying medication to help your night terrors.
Night Terror Resource Center. http://www.nightterrors.org/mot.htm. Night Terrors