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Night terrors are more severe than nightmares, where the sufferer will experience complete terror. They generally last anywhere from 30 seconds and up to 3 minutes, but sometimes the episodes can last longer.

From childhood all the way through adulthood, we have all experienced those dreams that frighten us and that is completely normal. Often they are triggered by emotions, something we have seen or heard, or simply they come from some strange place in our brain that we can’t quite figure out.

However, some people, particularly children, suffer from different kinds of bad dreams. These are called night terrors, and although they are not an actual medical problem, they can still be horrific for those experiencing them and those witnessing the episodes.

A study conducted in Norway that questioned 1,000 participants found that 10.4% had suffered night terrors at some point. A further study in the UK that questioned 4,972 participants found that 2.2% reported a history of night terrors. These figures may not seem that high, but when you look at the population size of America for example, this would indicate approximately 7 million people had suffered night terrors.

Those that suffer night terrors almost always also suffer from sleepwalking. It is believed that this is because both events occur during the same phase of sleep. Sleepwalking doesn’t just refer to leaving the bed and roaming around the house, it can also involve sitting up in bed wide-eyed but non-responsive.

What Are Night Terrors?

Night terrors are more severe than nightmares, where the sufferer will experience complete terror. They generally last anywhere from 30 seconds and up to 3 minutes, but sometimes the episodes can last longer. During a nightmare the dreamer will often wake up, but during night terror episodes they stay asleep throughout the duration.

Night terrors and nightmares occur during different phases of sleeping. A nightmare usually takes place during the REM stage of sleep, with is the rapid eye movement phase, towards the end of the sleeping period. A night terror occurs during the period of deeper sleep, the non-REM sleep or slow-wave sleep, which happens during the first third of sleep.

The Symptoms

Symptoms of night terrors can vary, but typically they involve:

  • Shouting and screaming
  • Sleepwalking
  • Sitting upright
  • Thrashing arms and legs
  • Kicking out
  • Rapid pulse
  • Heavy sweating
  • Heavy breathing
  • Dilated pupils
  • Difficulty waking
  • Can be wide-eyed yet still asleep
  • Aggression
  • Amnesia
  • Confusion when woken

What Causes Night Terrors?

There are a variety of possible causes of night terrors, although sometimes it is not possible to identify the exact reason they occur in an individual. Fever can be a contributing factor in night terrors in children, but is less likely to cause them in adults. Some other causes include:

  • Light
  • Noise
  • Full bladder
  • Unfamiliar surroundings
  • Deprivation of sleep
  • Stress
  • Sleepwalking

In some cases, it is believed there may be a genetic component to night terrors. One study found that 96% of sufferers of night terrors could identify at least one other family member that also suffered from them. Another study of identical twins found that if one twin suffered night terrors, the other did as well. However, in twins that were non-identical, it was possible for only one twin to have night terrors.

Another theory involves the thalamus, which is the part of the brain that plays a role in maintaining the cycle of sleep-wake. When functioning properly, it also reduces the signals we receive from our other senses while we sleep. Therefore, if there is an issue with the functioning of the thalamus, there is an increased risk of night terrors.

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