The article was last updated by Emily (Editor) on February 14, 2024.

Night terrors are a type of sleep disorder that can be frightening and disruptive. In this article, we will explore the causes of night terrors, including genetics, stress, medications, and sleep disorders.

We will also discuss the symptoms of night terrors, such as screaming, sweating, confusion, and difficulty breathing. We will compare night terrors to nightmares and explain how they are diagnosed. We will explore treatment options, including addressing underlying causes, cognitive behavioral therapy, medications, and relaxation techniques.

If you or someone you know experiences night terrors, this article will provide valuable insights and information.

What Are Night Terrors?

Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, are a type of sleep disorder that primarily affects children but can also occur in adults, involving sudden episodes of extreme fear and agitation during sleep.

During night terrors, individuals may scream, thrash, or appear terrified while still asleep, but often have no memory of the episode upon waking. These occurrences typically happen during non-REM sleep stages, especially during transitions from deeper to lighter sleep.

Although they are more prevalent in children aged 3 to 7, adults can also experience night terrors, especially if they are dealing with high levels of stress, anxiety, or have PTSD.

What Causes Night Terrors?

The causes of night terrors can be attributed to various factors including genetic predisposition, heightened stress and anxiety levels, certain medications, and underlying sleep disorders.

Genetic predisposition plays a significant role in the occurrence of night terrors. They tend to run in families, and increased levels of stress and anxiety can also act as triggers. Certain medications, such as those used to treat mental health conditions, may contribute to the onset of night terrors.

Additionally, individuals with underlying sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, are at a higher risk of experiencing night terrors due to disrupted sleep patterns.


Genetics play a significant role in predisposing individuals to night terrors, with family history and genetic research shedding light on the hereditary nature of the condition.

Ongoing studies have revealed a strong familial link in night terrors, demonstrating a higher likelihood of the disorder among individuals with affected family members.

Moreover, genetic analyses have identified specific genetic variations associated with an increased susceptibility to this condition, adding weight to the idea that night terrors are influenced by inherited factors.

Researchers are continually diving into genetic mechanisms underlying night terrors, aiming to enhance understanding and develop targeted interventions for those at genetic risk.

Stress and Anxiety

Elevated stress levels and underlying anxiety, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can contribute to the occurrence and severity of night terrors, highlighting the psychological impact on sleep disturbances.

The relationship between stress, anxiety, and night terrors is complex and multifaceted. Individuals experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety often find it difficult to achieve a state of deep relaxation during sleep, which can lead to disruptions such as night terrors.

Individuals with PTSD may have heightened reactivity to stress and trauma-related stimuli, potentially triggering night terrors. The persistent effects of trauma can manifest during sleep, disrupting the normal sleep cycle and leading to intense episodes of night terrors.

Research suggests that addressing the psychological aspect, including managing stress and anxiety, is essential in mitigating night terrors and improving sleep quality for individuals with PTSD.


Certain medications, particularly those affecting sleep patterns and brain activity, may contribute to the onset of night terrors, necessitating careful consideration and potential adjustment under the guidance of sleep specialists or healthcare providers.

As part of the treatment approach, sleep specialists may assess the impact of medications on sleep architecture and delve into the potential triggers of night terrors.

In some cases, sleep medicine professionals may recommend adjustments to medication regimens or explore alternative options to manage underlying conditions contributing to disrupted sleep.

Behavioral therapy and relaxation techniques can also be integrated into the holistic treatment plan to address anxiety or stress-related triggers for night terrors, enhancing the efficacy of pharmacological interventions.

Sleep Disorders

Underlying sleep disorders, such as disruptions in REM and non-REM sleep, can contribute to the prevalence of night terrors, necessitating comprehensive diagnosis through sleep studies, physical examinations, and EEG monitoring.

These sleep disorders can manifest in various ways, affecting an individual’s sleep patterns and leading to disrupted or partial incomplete sleep cycles. The REM stage, for example, is essential for processing emotions and memories, and disruptions in this phase can impact the manifestation of night terrors.

Through detailed sleep studies, clinicians can assess the stages of sleep, breathing patterns, and muscle activity to identify any irregularities or abnormalities. In addition, comprehensive physical examinations are crucial in the diagnostic process, as they can reveal potential underlying conditions or factors contributing to the night terrors.

These assessments may include evaluating neurological, cardiac, and respiratory function, providing valuable insights into the overall health of the individual and any potential connections to their sleep disturbances.

EEG monitoring offers a specialized assessment of brain activity during sleep, helping to detect abnormal electrical patterns or epileptic discharges that may be associated with night terrors.

This detailed analysis can further elucidate the neurological aspects of the sleep disorders, aiding in accurate diagnosis and tailored treatment strategies.

What Are the Symptoms of Night Terrors?

The symptoms of night terrors encompass intense fear, sudden arousal from sleep, and potential sleepwalking episodes, posing risks to the individual’s safety and well-being during episodes.

During a night terror episode, individuals often experience a sense of terror or dread, accompanied by physical symptoms such as rapid heart rate and sweating.

Sleepwalking may occur during these episodes, leading them to engage in potentially dangerous behaviors. Since night terrors are stress-related, managing stress and anxiety levels is crucial in mitigating the frequency and severity of episodes.

Ensuring a safe sleep environment, such as removing sharp objects or installing gates and locks, is essential to prevent any injuries during these episodes.

Screaming or Shouting

During night terrors, individuals may exhibit intense screaming or shouting, reflecting heightened brain activity during sleep, which underscores the need for accurate diagnosis and evaluation through sleep studies and related assessments.

These distressing episodes can be particularly alarming for both the individual experiencing them and their sleeping partners. They often depict vivid and terrifying imagery that contributes to the extreme vocalizations.

It is crucial for medical professionals to differentiate night terrors from other sleep disorders. This is because their distinct characteristics can aid in pinpointing the underlying causes and determining the most appropriate treatment strategies.

Sweating and Rapid Heart Rate

Night terrors may manifest with profuse sweating and a rapid heart rate, highlighting the physiological impact of stress levels on the body during these episodes, which can be assessed through physical examinations and stress-related evaluations.

During night terrors, the body’s response to fear and anxiety is often intensified, leading to an increase in sweating and a racing heart rate.

These physical symptoms are closely linked to the individual’s stress levels, as they indicate a heightened physiological arousal, often triggered by subconscious fear or distress. Such manifestations can be indicative of an underlying psychological response to stress and trauma, requiring a comprehensive assessment of the individual’s emotional well-being and coping mechanisms.

Confusion and Disorientation

Confusion and disorientation are common features of night terrors, reflecting disruptions in sleep patterns and potential sleep deprivation, underscoring the need for comprehensive evaluation of sleep quality and duration.

Individuals experiencing night terrors often display cognitive symptoms such as confusion, disorientation, and difficulty in arousing from sleep. These symptoms can be particularly distressing, leading to anxiety and a profound impact on overall well-being.

Research suggests that night terrors may occur during the non-REM stages of sleep, indicating a correlation between disrupted sleep architecture and the manifestation of cognitive disturbances.

Inadequate rest and poor sleep hygiene have been associated with an increased likelihood of experiencing night terrors, highlighting the crucial role of maintaining proper sleep habits for cognitive well-being.

Difficulty Breathing

Night terrors may involve episodes of difficulty breathing, which can be indicative of underlying breathing disorders warranting attention and potential management through relaxation techniques and bedtime routines.

This often takes the form of rapid, shallow breathing and can be distressing for both the individual experiencing the episode and those around them.

It’s important to note that while difficulty breathing may be a symptom of night terrors, it can also be a sign of conditions such as sleep apnea or asthma, which require medical evaluation.

Implementing calming bedtime rituals and relaxation methods, such as deep breathing exercises or meditation, can help reduce the frequency and severity of these episodes.

Creating a tranquil sleep environment and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule can also contribute to improved sleep quality and may alleviate difficulty breathing during night terrors.

How Are Night Terrors Different from Nightmares?

Distinguishing night terrors from nightmares involves considering the distinct characteristics of both experiences, the associated sleep patterns, and potential interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy for alleviating symptoms.

Night terrors are often characterized by sudden awakenings from deep sleep, accompanied by intense fear and symptoms such as sweating and rapid heart rate. These episodes typically occur during the first few hours of sleep and can lead to confusion and disorientation upon waking.

In contrast, nightmares occur during REM sleep and are often vivid, disturbing dreams that can be remembered upon waking. While nightmares may cause distress, individuals tend to fully wake up and can recall the content of their dreams.

Understanding these differences can inform tailored interventions to address the specific challenges associated with each experience, ultimately improving sleep quality.

How Are Night Terrors Diagnosed?

Diagnosing night terrors involves comprehensive assessments, including EEG monitoring, sleep studies, and physical examinations to evaluate brain activity, sleep patterns, and physiological responses during episodes.

EEG monitoring plays a pivotal role in diagnosing night terrors, as it allows for the measurement of electrical activity in the brain during sleep. This test can reveal abnormal patterns that may indicate the presence of night terrors.

Additionally, sleep studies provide valuable insights into sleep architecture and any disruptions in the sleep cycle, contributing to the understanding of night terrors.

Furthermore, physical exams are integral in ruling out other potential medical or psychological conditions that may present similar symptoms to night terrors. These exams help in evaluating overall health, identifying any underlying health issues, and assessing the impact of night terrors on physical well-being.

What Is the Treatment for Night Terrors?

The treatment for night terrors encompasses various approaches, including therapy, medication, and emphasis on sleep hygiene to address underlying triggers and alleviate the frequency and severity of episodes.

Therapeutic interventions such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and relaxation techniques play a crucial role in helping individuals manage their anxiety and stress, which are common triggers for night terrors.

Medications like benzodiazepines or antidepressants may be prescribed in severe cases to regulate sleep patterns and reduce the occurrence of episodes.

Equally important is the practice of maintaining good sleep hygiene, which involves establishing a regular sleep schedule, creating a calming bedtime routine, and ensuring a comfortable sleep environment. These measures collectively contribute to managing night terrors effectively.

Addressing Underlying Causes

Addressing underlying conditions and triggers, such as stress management and cognitive behavioral therapy, forms a fundamental aspect of treatment for night terrors, aiming to mitigate potential stress-related influences on the episodes.

Focusing on stress management in individuals experiencing night terrors can help reduce the severity and frequency of these episodes.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is also crucial for addressing distorted thought patterns and behaviors that may contribute to the development or exacerbation of night terrors.

By integrating these approaches, individuals can work towards understanding and managing the underlying factors that trigger their night terrors, ultimately improving their overall quality of life.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy, coupled with relaxation techniques and maintaining a sleep diary, offers an effective therapeutic approach for individuals experiencing night terrors, promoting better sleep patterns and stress management.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, commonly referred to as CBT, provides a structured and evidence-based treatment that targets the underlying causes of night terrors.

By identifying distorted thought patterns and behaviors, CBT helps individuals develop coping strategies and change negative patterns that contribute to the occurrence of night terrors.

Integrating relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation can aid in reducing anxiety and promoting relaxation before bedtime, thereby minimizing the likelihood of experiencing night terrors.


In certain cases, medications prescribed by sleep specialists or neurological experts may be considered as part of the treatment plan for night terrors, targeting specific aspects of sleep disturbances and associated symptoms.

These medications are typically used when non-drug approaches like improving sleep hygiene or addressing anxiety are insufficient in managing the condition.

Sleep specialists play a crucial role in evaluating the specific sleep patterns and triggers of night terrors to determine the most suitable medication regimen.

Neurological experts may recommend medications that modulate neurotransmitters involved in regulating sleep-wake cycles and managing arousal during sleep, such as benzodiazepines or tricyclic antidepressants.

Relaxation Techniques

Incorporating relaxation techniques and promoting consistent bedtime routines forms an integral part of managing night terrors, focusing on reducing stress levels and enhancing overall sleep quality.

Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery have been found effective in lowering arousal levels before bedtime, thus potentially minimizing the occurrence of night terrors.

Establishing a consistent bedtime routine, including a winding-down period and a calming environment, can signal the brain that it’s time to unwind and prepare for sleep, potentially reducing the frequency and severity of night terrors.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are night terrors and how are they different from nightmares?

Night terrors are a type of sleep disorder that causes intense fear and panic during sleep. Unlike nightmares, which occur during REM sleep, night terrors occur during non-REM sleep, making them more difficult to remember or recall.

What are the main causes of night terrors?

The exact cause of night terrors is unknown, but research suggests a combination of genetics, stress, and underlying psychological issues may play a role. They can also be triggered by sleep deprivation, medication, or substance use.

What are the common symptoms of night terrors?

The most common symptoms of night terrors include sitting up in bed, screaming, thrashing, and intense fear or panic. Other symptoms may include sweating, rapid heart rate, and difficulty breathing. These episodes typically last for a few minutes, after which the person may go back to sleep.

Can night terrors be a sign of a mental health disorder?

While night terrors may occur in individuals with underlying mental health disorders, they are not considered a mental health disorder on their own. However, if they occur frequently and significantly disrupt daily life, further evaluation may be needed to rule out any underlying issues.

What is the best treatment for night terrors?

In most cases, night terrors do not require specific treatment and tend to resolve on their own. However, if they are causing significant distress or disrupting daily life, therapy, medication, and changes in sleep habits may be recommended. It is important to consult a mental health professional for a personalized treatment plan.

Can night terrors be prevented?

While there is no guaranteed way to prevent night terrors, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, reducing stress, and addressing any underlying mental health issues may help decrease the frequency and intensity of episodes. Avoiding triggers such as sleep deprivation and substances may also be helpful.

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