What Are Night Terrors?

Night terror defined. Causes and symptoms of night terrors and how to help someone experiencing night terrors.

Night Terror defined. Causes and symptoms of night terrors and how to help someone experiencing the night terrors.First of all, before getting into detail about what this entails, I would like to state a night terror is nothing like a nightmare. This is a common misperception and misdiagnosis for those who don't fully comprehend the situation or what the individual is trying to explain. This is frustrating for those actually experiencing the night terrors because they feel their problem is being slighted and not taken seriously.

Have you ever spoken to someone who has gone through a night terror or witnessed an individual actually going through one? Speaking to someone about it first hand is really quite interesting, but witnessing it can be very frightening. More frightening, I might add, for the witness than for the person going through the night terror. While it is more common for the individual not to recall the events, or pieces of the events the next morning, unlike with a nightmare, a surprising few remember every detail. No one really knows for certain why night terrors occur, but it has been determined that they can be manifested in several ways:

  • eating too heavy of a meal before bedtime
  • being over tired at bedtime
  • certain medications
  • too much stress

Be advised, night terrors are not the sign or result of a psychological disorder. Most often there is nothing significant to become alarmed about. Night terrors are also misdiagnosed for Post Partum Stress Disorder. Anyone who has ever been through or witnessed a night terror will tell you this situation is not even close to that assessment.

Symptoms of night terrors include, but are not limited to the following:

  • sudden awakening
  • persistent terror at night
  • screaming
  • inability to explain what happened
  • sweating
  • confusion
  • rapid heart rate
  • usually no recall
  • crying
  • eyes may be open, but they are sleeping
  • some remember parts, while others are able to remember the entire thing

Night terrors have been reportedly occurring in approximately five percent of children between the ages of three and five. Studies have indicated these instances do occur in adults also, but are far less common. If you are concerned about someone you know experiencing night terrors, there are some things you can do to help make it less dangerous for the individual:

  • remove anything they could come in contact with that could cause harm to them physically
  • do not tell them they are only dreaming or yell at them, it is more disturbing than helpful
  • do not try to be forceful or make physical contact, you may hurt yourself or the individual
  • speak in a reassuring voice and be there for them at the end for comfort
  • keep in mind they do not know what they are doing

Remember that their panic can last between five and twenty minutes after the night terror has ended. The best thing you can do, no matter how disturbing the situation is to witness, is not to overreact. This will create nothing positive out of this already stressful event. If you notice this is becoming a nightly ritual with you child, it may be a good idea to contact their health care provider. That way anything more significant can be ruled out or addressed and dealt with properly.

next: Coping with Night Terrors
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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2007, February 18). What Are Night Terrors?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 16 from

Last Updated: July 4, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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