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Night Terrors: More Than Just Nightmares

Pretty much everyone has experienced vivid nightmares at some point in their lives, but even scarier than simple nightmares are night terrors. Also known as sleep terrors or pavor nocturnus, night terrors are a type of sleeping disorder than falls into the category of parasomnia disorders



Parasomnias are any sleeping disorder that causes unnatural or unusual behavior, movements, or emotions during sleep. Additionally, most parasomnia disorders, including sleepwalking, occur during changes in sleep cycles, most commonly when coming out of deep sleep into the lighter stages. 

This is true of sleep terrors, as they almost always occur following a slight arousal from the later stages of non-REM sleep, and most commonly during the first few hours of sleep, when the person spends more of their time in these deeper stages of sleep.

Just as with sleepwalking, when a night terror occurs, the person is usually in a semi-conscious state somewhere in between sleep and wakefulness. This is one of the major factors in most parasomnia disorders, and the person will usually remain mostly asleep, even if their eyes are open and they are speaking or moving around.

Who Usually Experiences Sleep Terrors?

Like other similar disorders, this condition is most common among children, affecting somewhere between 1 and 6 percent of the population. In most cases, the child will start experiencing terrors somewhere between the ages of 3 and 12, before they slowly dissipate during adolescence. 

night terrorsStill, somewhere around 1 percent of the adult population also suffers from this disorder. Often people who experience sleep terrors also suffer from another parasomnia disorder, usually sleepwalking, or at least have some family history of sleepwalking, terrors, or other similar disorders.

Some factors that are thought to increase the likelihood of a night terror episode, especially in children, include excessive tiredness or sleep deprivation. In addition, being disturbed during sleep is also a major factor, so you should try to ensure to eliminate any factors that could wake them up, such as anxiety or loud noises.

Night Terrors vs. Normal Nightmares

 

Most of us are familiar with nightmares, and until recently it was usually impossible to determine the differences between a simple nightmare and a night terror. The main difference is that nightmares occur during the lighter stages of sleep, which are also when most dreams occur.

 

When a person awakes up from a nightmare or a bad dream, they are typically able to recall the dream and can usually be quickly calmed back down and fall asleep again. However, sleep terrors occur while the person is still deep asleep, meaning that no matter how severe the symptoms are, the person usually never remembers the episode in the morning. 

This semi-conscious state leads to the person being nearly impossible to console. In addition, they are often not aware of their surroundings and unable to recognize the people around them.

Symptoms of Sleep Terrors

night terrorsIf you've never seen a person experiencing a terror episode, it can be incredibly frightening to watch, especially when it happens to your child. 

The symptoms can vary quite a bit, but most often the person will suddenly sit upright in bed with a look of sheer terror on their face. 

They may also start crying or screaming, while being completely unaware of where they are or unable to recognize even their own parents due to the fact that they're not actually awake.

Other common signs of these terrors can include excessive sweating, rapid breathing and an increased heart rate. In many cases, the person will also thrash about, sometimes punching, kicking, or even trying to flee. This is especially true when they are awoken in the middle of the episode, and many people have been injured by flying limbs when awaking a child experiencing one of these episodes. 

Most of the time, the person will have either completely forgotten the episode in the morning, or only be able to faintly recall a sleep disturbance.

What to Do When Someone is Experiencing a Night Terror

Being suddenly woken up by your child or partner screaming and thrashing about can be incredibly disconcerting to watch, but the most important thing is to not attempt to wake the person up until after the episode is over. Most terrors only last for a few seconds of minutes at most, at which point you can then wake them up.

night terrorsIf you attempt to wake up a person during one of these episodes, they may become even more agitated and confused, often not recognizing their own family members. This can make them even more difficult to console and often causes them to strike out at whoever woke them up.

After the episode is over, you should gently wake the person and begin consoling them. You need to make sure to fully wake them up, and not allow them to fall back asleep immediately, or else they may quickly experience another episode if they quickly fall back into a deep sleep. 

This is why many experts recommend making your child get up to go to the bathroom, as this is a good way to ensure they wake up, while also reducing the possibility that their sleep will again be interrupted.

Preventing and Treating Night Terrors

The best news for any parent with a child that frequently experiences night terrors is the fact that they are almost certain to outgrow the problem as they enter adolescence. Still, this does nothing to eliminate the problem immediately. Therefore, there are a few things you can do if your child often experiences terrors while sleeping.

The first thing is to discuss the problem with your doctor, at which time they may decide to test your child for other problems that might be leading to the terrors. In some cases, treating these other issues can eliminate the terrors.

If your doctor cannot find any other problems, then all you can do is try to manage the disorder as well as possible, by ensuring your child has a good sleeping pattern and trying to eliminate anything that might disturb their sleep. With any luck, the terrors should eventually go away and you'll never again have to watch your child suffering while sleeping.


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