If you’ve ever had a night terror, whether as a child or an adult, you know that night terrors are quite different from your run-of-the-mill nightmare. In fact, people rarely remember any sort of “dream” accompanying a night terror.
What is a Night Terror?
A night terror can be defined as an intense episode of fear while asleep often accompanied by screaming or crying. During the episode, the sleeping person may sit up or jump out of bed in panic. Confusion and disorientation usually occurs with the terror and the person experiencing the episode probably will not respond coherently to anyone trying to comfort him or her. Most often, the person will not remember any of the these symptoms.
Night terrors occur during Non-REM (NREM) sleep, usually in step 3 or 4 of the NREM sleep cycle. Often, they occur about 90 minutes after falling asleep.
Who Experiences Night Terrors?
Statistically speaking, night terrors are relatively rare in all age groups. However, they are much more common in children, affecting 5-6% of children ages 3-12. Most often, the night terrors go away on their own, without treatment, when a child reaches adolescence. In adults, night terrors are only experienced by 1-3% of the population. These adults may or may not have also experienced night terrors as a child.
If you’re experiencing night terrors as an adult, it does not mean that there’s necessarily anything “wrong” with you. Sometimes, a predisposition to night terrors is genetically passed down and other times night terrors are the result of environmental factors. However, night terrors can be more serious in adults than in children, so it’s important that if you have frequent or chronic episodes you don’t just ignore it.
What Causes Night Terrors in Adults?
Unfortunately, there is not one specific cause of night terrors in adults. However, there are several known factors connected to night terrors in adults, most of which can be controlled once pinpointed. Some factors include sleep deprivation, fatigue, stress, anxiety, sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings, and lights or noise. Night terrors are also more likely to occur if you experience other sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, or if you have frequent migraines.
Medications that affect the Central Nervous System, sleeping pills, alcohol, or illegal substance abuse have also been listed as causes of night terrors in adults.
What are the Symptoms of Night Terrors in Adults?
In most measurable respects, the actual night terrors that children and adults experience are quite similar. However, adults tend to react to the night terrors differently than children do. Adults often have more of a physical reaction to the night terror and may or may not react violently. If you are having night terrors that are physically dangerous to yourself or others, you should contact a doctor immediately. Adults also often have some memory of the event afterwards.
In children, night terrors are not usually the result of an underlying emotional, mental, or physical problem. However, in adults, they are quite often associated with mental illness, such as stress and anxiety or PTSD. This being the case, the night terrors are less likely to go away on their own in adults.
How to Stop Night Terrors in Adults
Night terrors in adults are often treated by addressing the underlying cause, usually associated with stress or anxiety. If you think stress or anxiety may be causing your night terrors, you can try these tips tonight to help prevent an episode:
- Practice mediation techniques before you go to bed
- Stop consuming caffeine and sugar several hours before bed
- Keep your bedroom clean and sleep with a night light
- Listen to relaxing music or put on a fan for white noise while you sleep
- Reduce stress in any other way you find effective
In the long run, you’ll probably want to talk to your doctor and/or a therapist or counselor about the sleep disorder. Therapists are especially helpful if a high level of stress is present. If you see a psychologist, you may undergo cognitive behavior therapy, biofeedback, hypnosis, or relaxation therapy.
In rare cases of extreme night terrors in adults (particularly when they can get dangerous or physical), a doctor may prescribe an antidepressant or the use of benzodiazepines (often used to control anxiety or panic attacks).
Although they may not be particularly common, there is a lot you can do to try to stop night terrors in adults. If you are suffering from an extreme case of night terrors, rest assured that there is hope for you, and talk to your doctor, sleep specialist, or therapist as soon as possible.