Night terrors are a bit of an anomaly in the world of sleep disorders, because they happen when the sufferer is awake. Given the bizarre way people behave when having a night terror, I’m convinced night terrors probably led many terrified people several centuries ago to believe that those suffering from them were possessed by demons, being haunted by a ghost, or some other such horrible thing. Thankfully, we now know that night terrors are a psychological phenomenon rather than a supernatural one. Sadly, though, they are very common in children and can leave many parents dreading bedtime.
What Is a Night Terror?
At first glance, a night terror looks a lot like a bad dream. A child having a night terror wakes up terrified, often screaming, and apparently unable to be consoled. Perhaps what is most troubling about night terrors is that the kid having them will often appear to be struggling to fully wake up but cannot, and typically falls back asleep before fully regaining consciousness. Normally a person who has suffered from a night terror will have no memory of the event the next day.
What Causes Them?
Night terrors occur during what is known as slow wave sleep. This is the deepest phase of sleep and is non-REM sleep, which means a person is not dreaming during sleep. This phase of sleep is the most difficult to awake from, which may account for why those experiencing a night terror appear to have difficulty awaking fully from the night terror. The most common cause in children of night terrors is surprisingly simple: the rather boring cause of being overtired!
How To Stop Them
When a night terror is taking place, the struggle to regain consciousness can actually contribute to the terror felt by the child experiencing them. Rather than encouraging your child to wake up, simply hug and comfort him or her calmly and quietly. She is more likely to fall back asleep more quickly, and the comforting presence of a parent may help the night terror to end more quickly.
In extreme cases, psychiatrists may recommend Benzodiazapene drugs. However, these drugs have serious side effects and can cause a variety of problems in children. Thus their use should not be taken lightly and they should only be prescribed in the most serious of cases. If a child is having repeated night terrors, waking the child up 15 or so minutes prior to the time they normally have a night terror usually works wonders. This helps to interrupt the stage of sleep that triggers the night terror and makes it less likely your child will wake up afraid.
Night Terrors in Adults
Night terrors in adults and teenagers are categorically different than night terors in children. These night terrors can be caused by a variety of factors, but are most common in trauma victims and often manifest as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder or other trauma induced anxiety disorders. Some adults may occasionally have night terrors due to poor diet, eating right before bed, or being overtired, though this is fairly uncommon. Adults who have night terrors generally require the help of a sleep specialist or mental health professional.
While night terrors can be frightening and troubling to both parents and children, they are generally not symptomatic of anything more than a strange sleep pattern, and typically fade away by the age of 9 or 10.