Is It a Nightmare or a Night Terror?

3 min read  |  October 30, 2017  | 

We’ve all been there; waking up in a cold sweat, heavy breathing, adrenaline pumping. You’ve just had a nightmare. Whether it’s dreaming that giant spiders are climbing all over your house, or a loved one is in danger, nightmares happen to the best of us. But for about two percent of adults, and up to 40 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 6 years old, there is another more terrifying nocturnal occurrence: night terrors.

Nightmares or night terrors: Know the signs

Night terrors usually occur in the first third of sleep and during non-dream or non-REM sleep, according to Nicole Mavrides, M.D., a childhood and adolescent psychiatry specialist at the University of Miami Health System. Nightmares occur during REM sleep or “dream sleep” – time when the brain is very active. This is usually in the 2nd half of the sleep cycle.

Nightmares seem to peak during the preschool years when kids are commonly afraid of the dark.

But they can occur at any age. “Nightmares are often a reaction to stress and can be a common symptom of anxiety issues in kids especially,” Dr. Mavrides says. “Other kids just have a very active imagination and tv shows and/or books can incite nightmares if watched or read before bed.”

Night terrors are much more intense and extreme nightmares, and much less common.

They are categorized as parasomnias, sleep disorders that include sleepwalking and sleep talking. They are very different from nightmares, in that a child will appear to be awake. They scream and cry, but are confused and can’t communicate. In reality, they are still “asleep.”

Night terrors are more common in the younger children, but may start between ages 4 and 12. Up to 40 percent of children between ages 2.5 and 6 have experienced at least one episode of night terrors, but they usually grow out of them by age 12.

“It’s a terribly unnerving ordeal to watch someone, especially a child, experiencing a night terror,” Dr. Mavrides says.  “Interestingly, it’s actually less stressful for the person who has the night terror because they rarely remember it.”

Terror-fying tidbits

You can tell if a person is experiencing a night terror if he or she:

  • Is shouting for help or screaming
  • Has his or her eyes open, but does not seem to recognize his or her surroundings (or has dilated pupils)
  • Has a racing heartbeat
  • Is panting heavily
  • Is sweating
  • Has a red face
  • Is showing intense fear, and is not able to identify the source

Do not disturb them

When you see someone having a night terror, your first instinct will be to run to the person and try to wake them, but try to resist. Just as with a sleepwalking person, waking a person during a night terror is difficult.  It’s best to wait it out, and make sure they don’t harm themselves.

“Trying to awaken the person, shaking them, or yelling tends to make the night terror worsen,” explains Dr. Mavrides. “They tend to only last a few minutes, but may last up to 40 minutes. Afterwards, the adult or child will simply drift back into a peaceful sleep.”

Tags: anxiety, child psychiatry, Dr. Nicole Mavrides, halloween, mental health in Miami, mental wellness, night terrors, nightmares

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