Few things are scarier than watching someone you love freak out uncontrollably at night—even if they won’t remember. Scarier still is hearing that someone was you from a loved one or roommate. Those are night terrors, and they’re no ordinary nightmares. Here’s why and when they happen, and how you can stop them.
Night Terrors Are Not Nightmares
A nightmare is, simply, a bad dream. But no matter how terrifying that dream may be, it’s not the same thing as a night terror. Nightmares are vivid and disturbing, and you may remember them when you wake up. Some people get them more than others. Nightmares can be triggered by stress, some medications, and perhaps even spicy food. But they’re still not night terrors.
Night terrors, also called sleep terrors, are a completely different experience. In a night terror, you can move and talk, but you don’t actually wake up. Your eyes might be open. You are caught in a sort of limbo between sleep and wakefulness.
If you have night terrors as an adult, you may not even know it. The terrors could be disturbing your sleep, though, making you wake up tired. And if you have roommates or family members in the house, they will certainly be able to tell you about it. One to two percent of adults get night terrors, compared to six percent of children. Some estimates put the children’s number as high as 15 percent.
Parents describe children who have night terrors as screaming or speaking, maybe thrashing around, and completely inconsolable. You cannot easily wake somebody up while they are having a night terror, and if you do, they may just become even more frightened.