What’s The Difference Between A Nightmare & A Night Terror?

photographed by Michael Beckert.
Sometimes the content of a nightmare is terrifying enough to make you wake up in your bed covered in sweat, feeling grateful that the half-horse half-human monsters coming to take over your job were all just figments of your imagination. But for people who have night terrors, bad dreams can lead you to literally scream, thrash, get up, and walk around — all while you're still asleep.
If you've never heard of night terrors before, they're defined as 10-to-20-minute episodes of screaming, intense fear, flailing, and sleepwalking, that occur while you're asleep, according to the Mayo Clinic. So, compared to your standard nightmares, night terrors are way more intense.
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To be clear, night terrors are more than just really bad nightmares. Night terrors are actually more similar to sleepwalking, because they're both considered "disorders of arousal," which means they strike during the deepest stage of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, according to the Mayo Clinic. Nightmares, on the other hand, tend to happen during REM sleep, which is the stage of sleep when your brain is most "awake." And while the details of a bad dream might stick with you for a while, most people won't remember acting out during a night terror the morning after. Spooky, no?
Experts don't know exactly what causes night terrors (although they tend to be hereditary), but they're sometimes linked with other underlying conditions, like sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, medication, post-traumatic stress disorder, and mood disorders, according to the Mayo Clinic. For some people, sleep deprivation and stress can trigger night terrors. Night terrors are also quite common in kids, affecting about 40% of children, but most people grow out of them in adulthood. That said, it is possible for adults to have night terrors, and they can interfere with sleep quality and relationships, which can lead some people to seek treatment.
Luckily, there are ways to get rid of night terrors that do not involve battling horse-humans. Treating night terrors is all about preventing triggers and helping people get sleep, according to the Mayo Clinic. For example, if night terrors seem to pop up during stressful periods, then learning ways to manage stress (through cognitive behavioural therapy or hypnosis) is usually the first line of defence. There's also a treatment called "anticipatory awakening," which involves being woken up 15 minutes before a night terror in order to prevent it. Of course if there's a bigger medical condition that's contributing to the terrors, then you should see a doctor or healthcare provider to have those addressed, too. But some people never seek treatment for night terrors, and just find ways to prevent them on their own.
As with many other sleep issues, prioritising good sleep hygiene (aka, setting consistent bedtimes, limiting daytime naps, avoiding caffeine around bedtime, and making your bedroom conditions ideal for good sleep) can help quell night terrors. And if you live or sleep with someone who gets night terrors, then it's important to be patient with them, and don't wake them in the middle of a night terror — even if they are shouting about horse people.
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