What Is Sleep Terror Disorder?

Reviewed by Melinda (Santa) Gladden, LCSW

Published 10/12/2022

A sleep terror disorder is when a person quickly wakes from sleep in a state of horror and confusion. In this state, the individual may scream, gasp, move around in their bed or sleepwalk, and perform other erratic behavior. After ten to twenty minutes, the individual usually returns to rest and when they wake up, they often do not have any recollection of the night terror.

A night terror's definition is the same as a sleep terror disorder or a sleeping terror disorder. They occur in both children and adults; however, they are rare occurrences. An estimated 6.5% of children and 2% of adults are affected by night terrors. Since people do not remember night terrors, there is a chance that this number is higher.

Despite its rarity, it is important to understand night terror disorders and what steps to take if you or a loved one experiences these episodes. The following write-up will contain key facts about the disorder and ways that can help both adults and children with a sleep time disorder.

When Do Night Terrors Occur?

Night terrors occur when the body is undergoing the non-rapid eye movement (NREM) stage of sleep.

Typically, a regular sleeping cycle has the individual smoothly transition from the NREM to REM stage, in which most dreaming occurs. However, night terrors are sudden reactions of fear that disrupt the move from NREM to REM, resulting in people waking up feeling scared and confused.

What Are The Symptoms?

As briefly discussed in the introduction, the symptoms include waking up in terror and moving around. However, there are other indicators of night terrors to be aware of. They are as follows:

  • Staring blankly
  • Rapid breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Exhibiting risky behavior, such as falling off the bed
  • Difficulty in being awaken
  • Affected individuals being aggressive towards loved ones trying to calm them down
  • Suddenly sitting upright in bed

Once the episode passes, which can be anywhere from a couple of seconds to upwards to forty minutes, the person falls asleep without fully awakening. Most children and adults cannot explain what happened during the episode after waking up.

For adults, their sleep terrors may be connected to a few mental health illnesses. They are as follows:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression

There is no connection between mental health illnesses and night terrors for children. Furthermore, it is typical for adults above the age of 65 to not have any night terrors.

Are Sleep Terror Disorders And Nightmares Similar?

While there are similarities between night terrors and sleep terror disorders, such as both episodes being unpleasant for the individual, the two also differ in a few ways.

When a person experiences a nightmare, they retain memories of the frightening ordeal. Children and adults usually cannot remember night terrors because they have no mental image of the episode.

Furthermore, nightmares usually occur during the last third of sleep. For example, if a person goes to sleep around 10 pm and they are asleep for eight hours, a night horror may occur between midnight and 2 am. On the other hand, nightmares may occur in the early morning, coinciding with the last third of sleep.

Lastly, individuals' nightmares often occur after they were exposed to something horrifying, such as watching a scary movie or show, before sleeping. Sleep terrors occur at any time without a specific catalyst triggering the episode.

What Are Some Possible Causes Of Sleep Terror Disorder?

While experts agree that sleep terror disorders happen when one partially wakes from NREM sleep, nobody knows the underlying cause of the phenomenon. However, there are still some factors that are considered in the development of night terrors:

  1. Environmental Changes
    1. Stressful situations, such as work or personal matters, can affect a person’s chances of having a sleep terror disorder.
    2. Changes in daily routines.
    3. For some adults and children, when they sleep in a new environment, they have night horrors if they do not feel comfortable.
    4. If someone is struck with an illness or fatigue, when they go to sleep, they may react to the illness with a night terror.
    5. Alcohol can cause many underlying conditions, and one such example is a night terror.
  2. Underlying Mental Health Conditions
    1. For adults, various mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, can contribute to occurrences of night terrors.
    2. Traumatic events may affect one’s chances of having night terrors as well.
  3. An Issue With The Respiratory System
    1. According to a 2003study that involved 20 participants being monitored to see if respiratory issues contribute to night terrors, the authors concluded that people with respiratory problems might trigger night terrors.
    2. There are also cases of people with sleep apnea having night terrors.
  4. Hereditary Causes
    1. Some individuals inherit night terrors from their familial background. Approximately 80%of children with night terrors also have family members who experienced similar episodes.

What Are The Warning Signs Of Night Terrors?

Since there is no traditional method in treating night terrors, it is important to observe your loved one and see if the sleep terror disorder is adversely affecting their daily routine. Look out for these behavioral changes from your loved one:

  • Night terrors are affecting your loved one’s relationship with you and those around them. Their unusual behavior, such as being aggressive or closed off from others, indicates that something is bothering them.
  • The person with night terrors does not wake up fully. They may feel groggy or lacking energy, and if it happens constantly, talk with them.
  • Actions during night terrors (jumping off a bed, falling down a pair of stairs) and being injured from them may be worrisome and should be looked into immediately.

If you or a loved one have experienced negative effects of night terrors, regardless if you only had one or multiple of them, then consider discussing a way to minimize these effects. Your form of treatment may differ if the person with a sleep terror disorder is an adult or child.

How Can You Help A Child With A Sleep Terror Disorder?

For parents, it may be incredibly upsetting seeing your child having night terrors and being unable to help them. Despite night terrors having no traditional treatment plans, parents can comfort their children after a night terror.

You must not wake someone up from their sleep if they are experiencing a night terror. Not only will they not respond to you, but also they can endanger you or themselves if you disrupt their episode. Unfortunately, you have to wait out the episode so that nobody gets hurt.

After they have overcome their episode and woken up, try the following methods:

  • Reduce your child’s stress by talking to them. Let them know that you will always be there for them and that they can talk about anything they want to you.
  • Establish a bedtime routine for your child. By waking up your child periodically, they stand a better chance of not experiencing night terrors.
    • There is developing research in which by waking up an individual at scheduled times, their chances of experiencing night terrors decrease. This involves night terrors occurring in the transition from NREM to REM. By waking up a child before they transition into this period, they may not have an episode. If your child frequently has night terrors at a specific time, then try waking them up before that time.
  • Lastly, prevent your child from becoming too tired by seeing to it that they go to bed at an early and reasonable time. By doing so, they have a better chance of waking up fully awake and not having any negative experiences.

How Can You Reach Out To An Adult With A Sleep Terror Disorder?

Many of the treatment options for children can apply to adults as well. However, if you are loved one experiences night terrors, then there are a few more ways you can help them cope with the sleep terror disorder.

  • If they are experiencing a night terror and you two are together on the same bed, then speak to them in a calming and soothing voice.
    • Try your best to not act worried or concerned. Let your partner know that you are there for them, even if they cannot hear you during their episode.
  • If your partner leaves the bed, try to gently guide them back. Be a comforting presence for them.
    • However, if you detect any hostile or aggressive behavior, back away from them. The worst thing that can happen is you or your partner getting hurt. Instead, speak to them in a calming voice and try to reassure them that everything will be okay.
  • When the next day comes and your partner feels abashed about their actions, reassure them that they have nothing to feel embarrassed about.
    • Explain that the episode was out of their control.


Night terrors are outside of an individual's control and can be a terrifying experience for them and their loved ones. So long as they are getting help from their loved one or are actively seeking ways to lessen the problem’s severity, then they can easily overcome the sleep time disorder.

While this is not a substitute for an official diagnosis from a healthcare professional, it can be a great start to understanding sleep disorders.

NOTES: no changes needed.

  • Does not go against what is clinically accepted.
  • Does not encourage mindsets or practices that may be harmful to the reader.
  • Is factual and up-to-date.