Night terrors feel as malevolent and unrelenting as any space monster scuttling over the ceiling. People who suffer from this sleep disorder will experience heavy dread and wild, even violent panic during the first hours of what’s called stage 3-4 sleep.
Some people scream and thrash about or jerk upright — which may suggest that they’ve been shocked suddenly awake. However, according to Dr. Dion Metzger, a board-certified psychiatrist, those people are not really awake — and they’re inconsolable in the moment.
Later, when they are awake, they might not remember exactly what they went through, though they will likely carry a residual fearfulness and anxiety. Though certain religious sects have equated night terrors with demonic possession and artistic types may associate them with creative vision (or award-winning special effects), Metzger tells SheKnows that night terrors are caused by “an intense arousal that happens during the deep stages of sleep.”
Night terrors, she adds, are different from nightmares because people with nightmares can recall the events and images that sparked such terror (although we’d probably prefer to blot out scenes where we must give that board presentation completely in the nude).
According to the National Sleep Foundation, night terrors tend to happen a bit earlier in the sleep cycle and not during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage — which is when sleep tends to be the deepest and our dreams are at their most vivid (which is why we are more inclined to remember our nightmares).
Researchers believe that night terrors may be the unfortunate result of a chemical misfire within the brain and that these misfires can be caused by stress or other mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.
Metzger says that heredity can also play a role in susceptibility to night terrors and that children, specifically boys, are more prone to them. Though there’s no absolute, consistently identifiable cause of night terrors (like, say, marathoning the Alien movies right before bed as a cause of nightmares), Metzger suggests that kids with unhappy home lives might be more likely to experience night terrors, so in those circumstances, individual and family therapy can help alleviate the pain. Grown-ups with chronic stress and underlying emotional issues could also benefit from counseling.
There isn’t a definitive treatment for night terrors for kids or adults, though lifestyle hacks like addressing stressors and getting into a more routine sleep schedule certainly can’t hurt. In some serious instances, a mental health professional or sleep specialist may prescribe benzodiazepines (typically for adult patients).
The truth is, most children who experience night terrors will eventually grow out of them, and there is little evidence to suggest that night terrors cause any long-lasting damage to adults’ health (that said, adults with night terrors might consider contacting their local sleep centers or enrolling in a sleep study).
Though the term night terror itself may conjure images of malevolent beasts and monsters and living through one can feel like being snared in the jaws of the alien queen, the condition is, overall, not at all life-threatening or even terribly severe.