Night terrors are recurring nighttime episodes that happen while you sleep. They are also commonly referred to as sleep scares.
When a night terrors start, it appears that you will wake up. They might scream, cry, move, or show other signs of fear or excitement. The episode can last anywhere from a few minutes to 30 to 40 minutes, although you usually do not wake up during this episode. Most people fall asleep again immediately after a night scare.
Night terrors are more common in young children, but if you’ve experienced them as an adult, you are not alone. An estimated 2 percent of adults also experience night terrors. In reality, this number may be higher as people often do not remember being afraid of the night.
Read on to learn more about adult night terrors, including their possible causes and how to stop them.
Sitting in bed and screaming is often the first sign of a night horror.
You could also:
- scream or cry
- stare blankly
- threshing or hitting in bed
- breathe quickly
- have an increased heart rate
- be red and sweaty
- seem confused
- get up, jump on the bed, or walk around the room
- becoming aggressive when a partner or family member tries to prevent you from running or jumping
Night terrors usually appear earlier in the night, during the first half of your sleep period. This is the case if you are in stage N3 of non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM), also known as slow wave sleep. It’s unusual to have them twice in one night, although it can happen.
Usually night terrors last only a few seconds to a minute, but can last 10 minutes or more. After a nightly terror, people usually lie back down and sleep without remembering the episode when they wake up in the morning.
You can experience them regularly or just a few times a year.
Night terrors may seem similar to nightmares, but the two are different.
When you wake up from a nightmare, you will likely remember at least some of what the dream was about. During the nighttime horror, you continue to sleep and usually don’t remember what happened when you wake up.
You may remember a scene from a dream that you had during the episode, but it is uncommon to remember a different part of the experience.
Night terrors usually occur when you partially wake up from NREM sleep. This happens when there are transitions between different stages of sleep; when you are not awake, but not completely asleep either.
However, the exact cause of this partial awakening and its relationship to night terrors is unknown. However, experts have identified a few factors that could play a role.
Basic mental illness
Many adults who experience night terrors live with mood-related mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.
Night terrors have also been linked to experiencing trauma and severe or long-term stress.
Respiratory diseases like sleep apnea can also increase the risk of night terrors.
A small 2003 study that enrolled 20 participants monitored esophageal pressure overnight to see how respiratory events could contribute to nighttime horrors.
The results suggest that people with sleep disorders, including night terrors, are more likely to have difficulty breathing while they sleep. The study’s authors believe that this could mean that the increased effort required to breathe could trigger excitement and abrupt awakenings from sleep, leading to night terrors or similar conditions.
Other factors that can contribute to night terrors include:
Night terrors in adults are sometimes difficult to diagnose because they do not occur regularly. Also, people often don’t remember having them.
However, if you think you have them or someone else saw you have them, make an appointment with a doctor.
They may ask them to keep a sleep diary for a short time to help rule out sleep deprivation or other problems. If you sleep with a partner, they can help provide details about the episodes.
To narrow down possible causes, your provider will likely ask:
- about your medical history
- whether you use substances
- if you have family sleepwalking, night terrors, or other sleep problems
- when dealing with stressful situations at work or at home
- about any mental symptoms that you have experienced
- whether you have ever had treatment for a mental health problem
- if you have symptoms of breathing-related sleep problems
- if you are taking medication or using natural remedies, especially for sleeping
When they rule out all possible medical causes, including other sleep disorders, they can refer you to a sleep specialist if your symptoms are having a huge impact on the quality of your sleep.
Night terrors don’t always have to be treated. But it might be worth a look if:
- Night terrors negatively affect you, your partner, or your relationship
- you often wake up feeling unrested
- the episodes adversely affect your usual activities or daily life
- Your actions during an episode (for example, jumping on your bed or out of bed) could harm you or your partner
To effectively treat night terrors, it is important to learn more about what causes it. Fixing these causes can result in fewer episodes and even help them stop completely.
Build good sleeping habits
A good starting point is a regular sleep schedule. You may find that getting enough sleep on a regular basis is enough to combat night terrors.
Before going to bed, try to avoid using electronic devices, doing work, or doing other stimulating activities. Instead, try meditating, relaxing in a bath, or reading a book. Avoiding caffeine late in the day and limiting alcohol consumption can also help reduce episodes. A comfortable and quiet bedroom can also help with night terrors.
Let someone wake you up
If your night anxiety tends to happen around the same time, try to wake yourself up about 15 minutes before it usually occurs. Stay awake for a few minutes before you go back to sleep.
You can do this with an alarm clock, or ask a partner or family member to wake you up.
Go to a therapist
In some cases, night terrors can be a sign of stress, trauma, anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems. If nothing seems to be working, consider seeking help from a therapist. You can use our Healthline FindCare tool to book an appointment with a psychologist in your area.
A therapist can help you identify any underlying problems and develop new coping tools. Biofeedback, hypnosis, and cognitive behavioral therapy can all help.
If you live with a partner or share a bed who is night terrified, there are a few things you can do to provide comfort and protection.
Avoid waking her up during an episode. You may not be able to wake them up, but even if you can, they may be confused or upset. This could cause them to behave physically and potentially injure both of you.
What you can do is be there to provide comfort without getting physically involved. Talk to them in a calm, low voice. If they get out of bed but aren’t aggressive, you can try gently leading them back to bed. But withdraw as soon as you experience hesitation or aggression.
If your partner is embarrassed to hear about their behavior the next day, try to calm them down and understand. Explain that you know it is out of your control.
Consider showing support by helping them track episodes in a sleep diary or going to a therapist appointment with them.
Night terrors are brief, scary episodes can cause you to scream or stand up in your sleep. While they are more common in children, they can also affect adults. Nobody is sure of the exact cause, but several factors can play a role.
If you suffer from frequent night terrors or have difficulty coping with it, make an appointment with your doctor first. They can help you narrow down a possible cause or find a sleep specialist or therapist.