• Night terrors are a sleep condition that involves thrashing, screaming, or panicking in your sleep. 
  • Nightmares differ from night terrors, as they happen in separate stages of the sleep cycle. 
  • Children often grow out of night terrors, but adults may need therapy or medication for treatment. 

If your family or roommates informed you that you scream, thrash, or visibly panic in your sleep, you may be experiencing night terrors. 

While rare, night terrors can affect both children and adults, though children tend to outgrow night terrors as they get older. 

Oddly enough, those who sleep alone might have no idea they had an episode, which can be dangerous.

"Serious and even deadly injury can occur. Attempts to escape from bed or to fight can result in harm to the patient or others," says Rajkumar Dasgupta, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine.

Here's what you need to know about the symptoms, causes, and treatment of night terrors.

What are night terrors? 

Night terrors are a type of parasomnia, which are sleep disorders that cause abnormal or unusual behaviors during sleep. They're often triggered by stress, fever, or sleep deprivation.

Night terrors vs. nightmares 

Nightmares and night terrors happen at different stages of the sleep cycle. The former occurs during the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which occurs in the second half of sleep, but the latter happens during non-REM, which happens in the first half of sleep.

Night terrors aren't technically a dream. You'll likely wake up from a nightmare, but remain asleep during a night terror episode.

Symptoms of night terrors

According to Dasgupta, night terrors can vary from 10 to 40 minutes. During that time, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • Screaming, shouting, kicking, or thrashing in bed
  • Eyes wide open with a look of intense fear
  • Heavy breathing, sweating, and having a racing pulse
  • Difficulty waking up
  • Having little to no memory of the episode the next morning
  • Getting out of bed to run around, possibly exhibiting aggressive behavior when restrained

Causes of night terrors

Mood conditions, like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, can interfere with sleep and make night terrors more likely to occur.

How night terrors differ in children

Night terrors are more common in children than adults and occur about 1% to 7% of the time. Only 2% of adults may experience these episodes.

While adults may remember very vague details of what the night terror was about, children won't usually remember anything in the morning.

Causes of night terrors in toddlers or children

  • Poor sleep 
  • Too much caffeine 
  • Change in medication 
  • Sleeping in an unfamiliar environment

Children will outgrow night terrors eventually, but if a person develops night terrors in adulthood, there are plenty of available treatments that they can try.

How to treat night terrors

  • Addressing or eliminating the trigger: Treating the underlying medical conditions that affect sleep can minimize the occurrence of night terrors.
  • Practicing good sleeping habits: Getting about seven to nine hours of sleep every night is crucial. It's also beneficial to establish a consistent and relaxing bedtime routine, like avoiding the use of electronics or eating large meals before bed. "Improving your sleep quality can certainly help," says Dasgupta.
  • Seeing a therapist: Night terrors may be caused by stress and mood disorders as well, so it's important to seek support from a mental health professional. You can use the SAMHSA Services Locator to check for facilities around your area.
  • Trying anticipatory awakening: Try videotaping yourself to observe your night terrors habits. If you find that the timing is fairly consistent, set an alarm to wake up about 15 minutes before you typically experience an episode, and then go back to sleep a few minutes later. This may help you avoid an episode during that night. You can also ask someone else to wake you up.
  • Taking medications: For some people, taking sedatives or benzodiazepines (like Valium or Xanax) is effective against night terrors, but keep in mind that they are rarely used to treat it. Melatonin may help, but it's more likely for the doctor to address the sleeping habits instead of recommending supplements or medicine, says Dasgupta.

Insider's takeaway

Night terrors are different from nightmares because you don't typically wake up during a night terror episode. If you do wake up, you likely won't remember the dream or might be generally confused as to what happened. You may experience symptoms like screaming, kicking, or running around with your eyes wide open while remaining asleep. 

There is a genetic risk to night terrors, but sleep deprivation, alcohol misuse, and mood disorders can also increase its likelihood. To minimize episodes and improve sleep quality, it helps to eliminate triggers and develop good sleeping habits.

"Individuals may be embarrassed by the sleep terrors. This can greatly affect their relationships with others," says Dasgupta. "If your sleep is being disrupted and this affects your daytime functioning, it's important to discuss this with a medical professional."


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